|Matt Cullen and the Senators haven't given up on the prospect of catching the Buffalo Sabres for top spot in the Northeast Division (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images).
Upon first glance, it might seem like a mountain too steep for them to scale.
But if the Ottawa Senators have given up on tracking down the Buffalo Sabres for top spot in the Northeast Division — and the high playoff seeding that goes along with it — they're certainly not saying so. Even if they're staring at a seven-point deficit with barely two weeks remaining in the regular schedule.
"I don’t think it’s too big of a gap to think about," Senators centre Matt Cullen said following the team's practice earlier today at the Bell Sensplex. "Time will tell whether or not it is, but I think for us to set that as a goal isn’t outrageous. If we keep that as our focus, we’ll see what happens. But if we continue to play the way we are, anything can happen.
"Certainly, (a division title) is a benchmark that we’re looking at. But for us right now, the main focus is on winning as many games as we can and climbing as high as we can. To get that third (seed in the Eastern Conference) would be huge for us, but we can only control the next game and that’s what we’re going to focus on."
Added head coach Cory Clouston: "We're just trying to win a game. That's all we're worried about. We have no idea how it's going to shape up, but if we can catch them, great. If we can't, we're going to try to win as many games as possible and tomorrow night's our next game."
The next game, as it turns out, is Friday night in Buffalo against those Sabres (7:30 p.m., TSN, Team 1200). A victory in regulation time is an absolute must for the Senators in their quest, especially with the Sabres also holding two games in hand. The teams also close out the regular season against each other April 10 at Scotiabank Place.
"We’ve still got two matches against Buffalo and we've played well against them," centre Mike Fisher said about a rival the Senators are 4-0-0 against so far this season. "We want to finish as high as possible but (our focus is) to make sure we’re going into the playoffs playing well, finding our game and just building off the last couple of wins we’ve had."
"I don’t think it’s too big of a gap to think about. Time will tell whether or not it is, but I think for us to set that as a goal isn’t outrageous. If we keep that as our focus, we’ll see what happens. But if we continue to play the way we are, anything can happen." - Matt Cullen
The greater concern is continuing to maintain the level of play that produced a pair of crucial 2-0 shutout victories over the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers earlier this week. As goaltender Brian Elliott put it, "you don't want to go on the playoffs not on a run. You don't really give yourself a chance."
Senators centre Jason Spezza
agreed with that sentiment, saying it's the biggest key to any shot they might have at reeling in the Sabres. Division winners are seeded no lower than third in the conference for the playoffs and that's the bonus prize at stake.
"Just winning games is a goal, I think, and it starts tomorrow in Buffalo," he said. "If we can win a few games in a row and (the Sabres) lose a couple, then it’ll become more realistic heading down to the last game of the year. But we just want to be playing good hockey and we’ve played better of late. We’re feeling good again and hope to continue it."
Cullen, for one, believes the Senators still have a lot more hockey in them to give.
"I truthfully think that the sky’s the limit with us," he said. "The way we’ve played the last few games, particularly with the goaltending we’ve been getting from (Elliott) ... We have a dangerous team. I think there’s a real upside here."
Around the boards
Forward Alex Kovalev didn't make the trip to Buffalo and won't play Friday night. He's suffering from a lower-body injury ... Captain Daniel Alfredsson
and veteran defenceman Chris Phillips
took days off practice today but Clouston expects both to be in the lineup in Buffalo ... Since the end of the NHL lockout, the Senators are 24-6-4 against the Sabres and have won eight straight against their division rivals ... Ottawa is back at home Saturday to face the Florida Panthers at Scotiabank Place (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200). Fewer than 2,250 tickets remain for the game.