This close to the finish line, it wouldn't be difficult for their thoughts to start drifting toward the excitement of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Or so you might think.
But much as the Ottawa Senators appear to be just three weeks away from embarking on a post-season journey that seemed improbable at the season's outset, they're not exactly ready to start accepting pats on the back just yet. The task at hand, they'll tell you, isn't anywhere close to being complete.
"We've (still) got nine games to play and we haven't done anything," Senators head coach Paul MacLean said when asked if his team's mindset is about to shift into playoff mode. "We still have to get through 82 games or get the 'x' (in the standings, which signifies clinching a playoff berth) ... that's the only time that you know you have something accomplished."
All of which is to say that while Tuesday's matchup with the New Jersey Devils at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200) would seem to carry added importance — the seventh-place Senators (37-26-10) trail the sixth-place Devils (41-26-5) by a mere three points in the Eastern Conference standings — this is a group that plans to attack each of the remaining nine games in its schedule in the same fashion.
"You can look at any game and find a reason to say (it's important)," captain Daniel Alfredsson
said following Senators practice earlier today at Scotiabank Place. "You play a team that's below (in the standings), you say you have to win this game because they're below you. Or you play a team that's ahead of you and you say you have to win this game because you want to catch them.
"So every game is important. I don't feel that (Tuesday's game) is more important than others. We definitely down the stretch here, with nine games to go, and we're just looking forward to finishing as strong as we can. Hopefully, we'll be in a playoff spot, then we can look forward to what everybody plays for — the playoffs."
League wide, game results are now being watched more intently than at any point in the schedule. Not just to see who's in or who's out, but to witness the jockeying for position that goes on every night. The Senators climbed into first place in the Northeast Division standings on Friday night, but went back to second — and seventh overall in the East — just 18 hours later, when the Boston Bruins knocked off the Philadelphia Flyers in a shootout.
Yes, it's that close, and reason enough to put an emphasis on every single outing.
"Every game we play, we have a chance — if we win — to gain on somebody or put someone farther behind us, which is everyone's goal at this time of the year," said MacLean. "We want to play 82 games and then we'll see where we are. Every game is important because you have the chance to advance, or advance on somebody. They're all important for that (reason)." Around the boards
Goaltender Craig Anderson
took part in another full practice with the team today, but there is still no timetable for his return. It isn't likely to happen until this coming weekend at the earliest, when the Senators have games Friday in Montreal (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200) and Saturday at Scotiabank Place against the Pittsburgh Penguins (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200). "He's getting better, he's practising," said MacLean. "It's four weeks on Thursday (since the kitchen accident that sliced a tendon in his right pinky finger), which is the date the surgeons thought was important to get to. We'll take it day by day and see how it goes." ... Senators centre Jason Spezza
was absent from practice today to attend the funeral of close friend Nik Zoricic, a freestyle skier who was killed in an accident in Europe last weekend, while blueliner Matt Gilroy
was also away to attend the wake of a relative who perished in an automobile accident back home on Long Island ... MacLean will give goaltender Ben Bishop
(3-1-2, 2.10 GAA) his seventh straight start on Tuesday, when the Devils visit Scotiabank Place.