VANCOUVER -- In the jam-packed Eastern Conference, you can make a case that 12 teams have a chance to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So for the Ottawa Senators, there's certainly reason to believe their season is far from over.
The Senators' 4-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks in the 2014 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic on Sunday moved them within three points of the Detroit Red Wings for the final wild-card spot in the East.
For a team coming off one of its worst losses of the season three days earlier, a 6-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday, and starting a four-game road trip through Western Canada and Winnipeg, the win Sunday provided a needed dose of confidence.
"We hope it launches our march," Senators captain Jason Spezza said. "We had a tough one against Detroit. [Sunday] was a very important game. We knew that we needed this one. We have a tough trip. It's hard to come out here to Western Canada and play in all these rinks and take a lot of points. It's a necessity for us though. We hope this is a big jumping-off point for us."
The four-game road trip continues with back-to-back games at the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames on Tuesday and Wednesday and concludes against the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday. Ten of their final 21 games, however, are played at home.
If they play those 21 games like they played Sunday, they'll be in good shape. A team that entered 28th in the League in goals-against per game at 3.16 did a solid job defending what was a one-goal lead for most of the third period despite being outshot 11-6. They also blocked 12 shots and had six giveaways, snapping a streak of three straight games with double-digit turnovers.
"We paid the price," goalie Craig Anderson, who made 29 saves Sunday, said. "We were tough to play against. We made them pay to come to the front of the net. If you saw, there were a lot of their guys laying on the ice. We were making them pay to go to the hard areas. When you do that it forces teams to second-think about going to the net. We blocked shots. We did the things that needed to be done to win the hockey game."
That's why Senators coach Paul MacLean feels good about his team's chances moving forward.
"We have to keep winning," he said. "If you want to get in, you have to win. … We have to turn around [Monday] and go to Edmonton and get ready to play another difficult opponent. We go day-by-day, game-by-game. We still think we're going to like where we are after 82 games."
The Canucks hope to be saying the same thing. The loss Sunday left them with 66 points, the same as the Dallas Stars, but the Stars hung on to the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference based on having played three fewer games. The Canucks also now trail the Winnipeg Jets, who also have 66 points but have played one fewer game than the Canucks.
Vancouver has played 63 games, the most in the West, making their road back into a playoff spot that much bumpier.
Part of the problem for the Canucks has been a lack of offense. The two goals they scored in the first period Sunday marked the first time in 10 games they had scored more than one goal in a period. They're 27th in the League in goals per game at 2.33, their power play is 27th at 13.9 percent, and Daniel Sedin, tied for the team scoring lead, missed most of the final two periods Sunday with an injury after being hit into the boards early in the second period. The Canucks had no update on Sedin's condition after the game.
And to make matters worse, there could be another goaltending controversy as coach John Tortorella started rookie Eddie Lack on Sunday ahead of veteran Roberto Luongo. Lack has started all three games since the end of the NHL break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The Canucks won once in their three-game homestand coming out of the Olympics and are 1-8-1 in their past 10. They have a two-game road trip this week, with games Tuesday at the Phoenix Coyotes and Thursday at the Dallas Stars, but 10 of their final 19 games are at home, including six of seven to close the season.
Despite all the issues good and bad, Tortorella, like MacLean, believes he's coaching a playoff team.
"We need to keep believing as an organization," Tortorella said. "I'm not down. Sure you'd like to win a game and maybe get the five out of six (points on the homestand) before you go on the road, but it changes quickly. We're still in the middle of it. I know everybody talks about you need to do this, that and the other thing to get in. There are four other teams that need to do the same thing. So we're going to take each day. I am not going to get down on this club and we're going to keep working at it and find a way to scratch out one."