|Veteran Senators blueliner Matt Carkner is excited to be back in the mix as the team tries to secure a Stanley Cup playoff berth. He's been a part of back-to-back Ottawa wins since returning to the lineup after being a healthy scratch for 12 games (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).
This is when the games matter the most.
And this is why Matt Carkner
breaks into an easy smile when he talks about the opportunity to be a contributor as the Ottawa Senators zero in on a Stanley Cup playoff berth. With the veteran blueliner back in the lineup, the Senators have posted back-to-back wins over the Pittsburgh Penguins and Winnipeg Jets in their quest to nail down a post-season spot.
But with the Buffalo Sabres and Washington Capitals breathing down their necks, the Senators have little margin for error in their final five games of the season.
"(Teams) are catching up to us," said Carkner, a healthy scratch for nearly a month before getting back into the lineup for last weekend's crucial two wins. "To be able to come in and help out in whatever way I could ... it's just great to be a part ot it."
It would have been easy for Carkner, a 31-year-old native of nearby Winchester, Ont., to feel disconnected from it all as he watched from the sidelines for 12 straight games. But his teammates simply wouldn't let one of the team's top character players stay down for long.
"I love hockey, I love playing and I love being with the guys," said the 6-4, 237-pound Carkner. "While I was out, they still made me feel a part of the team. I was involved, but it's different when you're in the stands watching. But I've been lucky to get into the last couple of games and we're winning, so it's a good feeling.
"That being said, it doesn't really change my role. I've just got to keep working hard and hope that I get opportunities to contribute."
Carkner is a positive guy by nature, but even he admitted it was a struggle at times to keep his head up. After having the start of his season delayed until December by injury, he's seen only 26 games worth of duty with the Senators — the lowest of his three years in an Ottawa jersey.
"There's ups and downs," said Carkner. "It's just like everyday life. People have good days and bad days. When you see your name scratched for the eighth day in a row, sometimes it's tough. But I always try to have a 10-minute period where I let myself get down a little bit ... then right away, the guys are there to help pick me up and I try to do the same thing.
"Nothing good comes from being negative, so as long as you get it out of your system and get back to work and refocus, that's kind of how you deal with it."
Meanwhile, this weekend marks the beginning of a stretch that will determine the Senators' eventual fate in terms of playoff positioning. While the team no doubt took note of the Pittsburgh Penguins' 4-3 triumph over the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night that helped their cause, the focus remains on road matchups against the Philadelphia Flyers (Saturday, 1 p.m., CBC, Team 1200) and New York Islanders (3 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200).
"Our mindset is we've got to look after our own business," said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson
. "We're not hoping for anybody (else) to lose games or anything. We're hoping we can take care of ourselves, play five more games and see where we end up."
Added head coach Paul MacLean: "We've said along that we're going to play 82 games and we'll see where we are at the end of it. If we work hard and play the way that we want to play, we believe we're going to like where we're going to be."
Best of all, the Senators like the idea that their fate is completely in their hands.
"I'm excited because it's kind of up to us," said Senators forward Nick Foligno
. "It's pretty much down to how we're going to play that's going to decide where we are ... You can't worry about everybody else. That's the biggest thing — you just worry about yourself. We put ourselves in a good position to do that.
"We've played well enough that we're able to just figure out our game and make sure we're sharp when we need to play. It starts with tomorrow afternoon in Philly."Around the boards
Senators forward Jesse Winchester
, out since Dec. 20 with a concussion, feels ready to make his return to the lineup. "It’s just a matter of being sharp on the drills and getting the timing back," he said. "I feel like I have it, but I just have to be patient and make the most of my opportunity when I get called on." MacLean won't say yet when that might be, terming the veteran forward's status "a day-to-day thing" heading into the weekend. "You have to be fair to him," said MacLean. "You have to make sure that he’s ready. If he’s not ready to go, it could be a setback and we certainly don’t want that. Yes, he’s made good progress through the practices and he’s worked real hard in practice and everything has gone real good for him. But at the same time, he hasn’t played since December. It’s a long time and we have to make sure he’s ready to go and it’s the right thing for the team." ... Craig Anderson
, who backstopped the Senators to wins in his last two appearances, will get the start Saturday in Philadelphia.