The last few steps to the finish line keep getting tougher by the day.
And Sunday’s jarring 5-1 setback at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes surely offered one more stark reminder that nothing will come easily for the Ottawa Senators as this National Hockey League season rapidly winds toward its conclusion. Especially with so much yet to be decided over what should be a hectic final three weeks of play.
“Now, they see every game is going to be huge down the stretch,” Senators head coach/general manager Bryan Murray said Tuesday when asked what his team should take from the one-sided loss in Raleigh, N.C.
“Everybody is well aware of the standings and how everybody is playing around them. They’ve got the message. We all know that, over an 82-game schedule, there are going to be nights where you not very good. We know that as a team and as individuals.”
What was most puzzling, though, is that the effort in Carolina came on the heels of a three-game winning streak punctuated by a 3-0 whitewashing of the Canadiens in Montreal on Thursday night – one of the Senators’ top performances in recent weeks.
“I can’t explain it,” said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson
. “Carolina is probably thinking the same thing. How do you explain them losing 7-1 to Buffalo (last Friday) and then beating us 5-1?
“The margin is so small (in the Eastern Conference). If you’re not playing well for 5-10 minutes, it could mean two or three goals (in your net).”
Added centre Jason Spezza
: “You’re going to lose games. That’s one of those games you just park. You might as well lose 5-1, 6-1 or 7-1 than lose 2-1 and think you played well. You lose a game by a blowout and that straightens everybody out.
“Sometimes, it’s good to have a game like that where (you say) hey, we played three really good hockey games but we’re not unbeatable or untouchable. You get blown out and it brings everybody back to earth.”
Undoubtedly, the Senators’ remaining schedule should help narrow their focus even further. After Thursday’s game with the St. Louis Blues at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., A-Channel, Team 1200), it’s nothing but divisional play the rest of the way. Included in those eight games: A pair with the Canadiens, who currently hold a two-point edge over the Senators for the Northeast Division lead.
“Your motivation has to go up,” Senators defenceman Mike Commodore said with an eye toward the upcoming slate of games. “Your future’s in your own hands. It’s not down to the fact that, during the last 4-5 games, we’re playing Phoenix or somebody like that, and (a team) we’re battling – Montreal or whoever – is playing somebody else.
“We’ll be playing them head-to-head so if we want to finish first or we need those two points, then it’s up to us directly to get it.”
Clearly, playoff seeding is also on the line, too. And it’s still very much anybody’s guess where the Senators might finish. With 87 points, they’re fifth in the conference – only three back of the first-place New Jersey Devils, but just four better than the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins, who currently hold down sixth and seventh, respectively.
But as the Senators proved last season, it isn’t the regular-season champ that prevails in the post-season. More important, they say, is getting their game in top form when the puck drops for the playoffs.
“You’d like to get home ice (advantage) but at the end of the day, it’s not everything,” said forward Chris Kelly. “You want to be playing well and playing your best going into the playoffs. If you get home ice, it’s a bonus.
“Last year, we only had home ice for the first round and I thought we did fairly well from there.”
Around the boards
There had been some hope forward Chris Neil
(knee) might be ready to see game action this weekend, but he has yet to practise with the team and Murray said that isn’t likely to happen until sometime next week … No starting goaltender has been named yet for Thursday’s game … Fewer than 300 tickets remain for the visit by the Blues.