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Senators focused on big picture

Ottawa confident, moving forward despite three losses against Canadiens

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / Senior Managing Editor

MONTREAL -- Maybe the Ottawa Senators are right.

Maybe the three games they played against the rival Montreal Canadiens over a one-week span with first place in the Atlantic Division on the line were simply another three games, which the Senators happened to lose after a 3-1 defeat at Bell Centre on Saturday.

The loss prevented the Senators from overtaking the Canadiens for first place in the division, something that would have happened had they won any of the three games. But the Senators lost 4-3 in a shootout at home on March 18, lost 4-1 at Bell Centre a night later and lost again Saturday.

But just like they did last weekend, the Senators focused on the bigger picture after the game Saturday. The goal remains qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and that they are still in good position to do so.

That is true, with the Senators trailing the Canadiens by three points with eight games to play, one more than Montreal, and also leading the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs by five points.

But failing to seize a golden opportunity to pass the Canadiens in the standings three times had to be disappointing for the Senators, regardless of what they said. If it was, they did a good job of hiding it Saturday.

"You can ask me the question 25 times so I change my answer, but our approach has not changed," Senators coach Guy Boucher said. "Our approach is the same; it's one team at a time, one day at a time. It might have been a lot of games against the same team in one week, that's unusual, but our goal is to continue to improve and become a team that is able to win important games. We proved all season that we're able to, but right now the Canadiens proved they are No. 1 for a reason."

Boucher's players appeared to buy his message.

"It's just a blip on the radar," said goaltender Craig Anderson, who started all three games against the Canadiens after coming back from an injury that kept him out for two games. "Just another game, we have to move forward to tomorrow. There's no disappointment in here. We're looking forward to the next one and keep grinding."

Video: OTT@MTL: Anderson turns aside Pacioretty's break

Boucher holds a Master's degree in sports psychology from the University of Montreal, so his approach to these three games against the Canadiens has been interesting to watch evolve.

Last weekend, the Senators were playing their second and third games in four nights while the Canadiens were coming in with four days rest, a point Boucher made repeatedly at the time and said again after the game Saturday. The Senators were missing Mark Stone last weekend, a fact Boucher emphasized by noting he is their best forward and someone who is impossible to replace.

It was almost as if Boucher were creating a scenario under which a winning weekend would be seen as a great triumph against the odds, but a losing one would be understandable.

Neither of those challenges existed Saturday. The Senators came in trailing the Canadiens by one point, just as they had a week earlier. Each team had played on Thursday and Stone was back in the Senators lineup, though they were missing defenseman Marc Methot because of a finger injury that will keep him out of the lineup for at least another week.

In spite of that more equal footing, Boucher still downplayed the loss and focused on his own message.

"We wanted to win tonight and we wanted to win the other games [against Montreal], but no more so than we wanted to win against Boston or all the other games," he said. "You have to survive every day in the NHL and survive to make the playoffs. We're continuing to survive and to evolve as a group."

The Senators are doing more than surviving right now, and that is an important factor to remember here.

When the 2016-17 schedule was released last summer, it would be fair to assume no one saw these three games as a potential battle for the top of the Atlantic Division. Sure, Montreal with a healthy Carey Price in goal could easily be in that type of position, but Ottawa being so close in the standings at this time of year was not very foreseeable.

Video: OTT@MTL: Pageau finishes Hoffman's slick feed

The fact these three games against the Canadiens were important is an accomplishment unto itself, one the Senators earned by defeating the Boston Bruins 3-2 on the road Tuesday and the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 in a shootout at home Thursday.

"Obviously it's a heated rivalry. You want to win," Senators center Kyle Turris said. "But at the same time, we're kind of focused on the process of putting ourselves in a good position come playoff time and having the opportunity to get there."

Once the Senators get there, once they attain their goal of making the playoffs, then the attitude and the urgency will need to shift.

But as much as it seemed like it, these were not playoff games against the Canadiens and a level-headed, big-picture approach might be appropriate.

No one would know that more than Boucher.

But with the playoffs looming, he better know how to flip that switch when the time comes.

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