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Cowen banking on wealth of big-game experience

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
He's won a Memorial Cup, a Calder Cup and a pair of world junior silver medals. It's big-game experience that Senators rookie blueliner Jared Cowen hopes to use during his first foray into the Stanley Cup playoffs starting Thursday against the Rangers in New York (Photo by Matthew Healy/OSHC).

The big stage, the bright spotlight ... none of it is exactly new to Jared Cowen.

Then again, how many players can say they've won a Memorial Cup, a Calder Cup and a pair of world junior silver medals, all of them before his 21st birthday?

That being said, the big Ottawa blueliner is expecting something completely different starting Thursday night, when the Senators open the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).

"I imagine it will be high," Cowen said of the intensity level for Game 1 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final series. "You watch it on TV and it always seems like it's really intense."

Ask anyone who's played in the gold-medal game World Junior Hockey Championship — especially in a Team Canada jersey — and they're very much aware an entire country has its eyes glued the result, with an expectation level that can be almost suffocating. But the 6-5, 230-pound Senators rookie, an alternate captain for Canada at the 2012 world juniors in Alberta, has already proven he can handle the big stage.

Back in 2008, a 17-year-old Cowen was a standout as his Spokane Chiefs knocked off the host Kitchener Rangers to win the Memorial Cup. Last season, he joined the Binghamton Senators during the second round of their Calder Cup championship run, with B-Sens head coach Kurt Kleinendorst later saying Cowen's minute-munching presence — more than 30 a game at times — was a huge difference-maker in the American Hockey League title drive.

Cowen believes he can draw on all of that experience now, especially with the stakes being at their highest during his first season in a Senators uniform.

"I think it helps, having been in those kinds of situations before," said Cowen, the Senators' top pick (ninth overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. "I don't know if (these playoffs) will be the same ... it's hard to say. World juniors are pretty intense and the Calder Cup final was up there, too. I'll see when I get there, but it'll be interesting to see what it's like in comparison."

Having watched Cowen grow into a solid, dependable blueliner over the course of the season, Chris Phillips — the elder statesman of the Senators' defence corps in terms of service to the team — doesn't doubt Cowen can handle whatever is thrown at him over the next few weeks.

"You look at the start of the season and he was playing 20-plus minutes pretty well every night, and playing in every situation," said Phillips, 34, who's about to take his 12th journey into the Stanley Cup playoffs. "He's a big part of our team. He plays a lot of minutes and he was able to step right in and look like he was doing it for years.

"He's so level-headed that I would expect this (playoff experience) will be no different."

After playing his way onto the roster out of training camp, the durable Cowen suited up for all 82 games this season — one of only three Senators to do so this season (forwards Nick Foligno and Colin Greening are the others). He's been pleased with his introduction to the NHL wars this season.

"It's gone well," said Cowen, who's collected 17 points, including five goals, and posted a minus-4 rating in 2011-12. "Anytime you're a first-year guy, there's going to be ups and downs. There's always been something to learn and it's been a learning process, for sure. I think now, I'm feeling more confident ... I'm pretty happy with how it's gone."

He admits the presence of veterans such as Phillips, Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba has helped him grow and settle in along the way.

"The veterans who have been there before ... they always seem way more calm and they can tell the younger guys (what to do)," said Cowen. "I wouldn't expect anything less from these guys. I know they'll show the way and be that steady part of our team, which is huge for us."

And steady is the key word when it comes to the playoffs, said Phillips, who made his NHL post-season debut as a 20-year-old rookie in 1998 — the year an eight-seeded Senators team shocked the top-seeded New Jersey Devils for the first playoff series win in modern franchise history.

"There's a lot of attention, there's a lot of hype," Phillips said in describing the intensity level of the Stanley Cup playoffs. "The (media) attention is going to be even more when we get to New York. The crowd's loud and they're in it for the entire game.

"Playoffs are really a game of mistakes. You want to be hard and you want to be aggressive but at the same time, you want to be patient and not try to do too much or make big plays or get too locked in to the excitement. Really, for ourselves (as a team), we want to just continue to play the game we've played all year and not change our game because we're in the playoffs."

Two years ago, Cowen was a spectator when the Senators duelled Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the playoffs. Now he can't wait to join the fray himself.

"I'm pretty excited for the home games, with the crowd and the atmosphere," said Cowen. "When we played Pittsburgh (in 2010), I was here watching and it was pretty fun to watch. It's going to be great to be a part of it now."

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