|With Ben Bishop sidelined by injury, Senators goaltender Craig Anderson is likely to be the team's main man in goal again during the final six games of the regular season (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images).
The stakes — and the intensity, for that matter — couldn't be much higher.
When the Senators and Jets face off tonight before what should be another raucous full house at Winnipeg's MTS Centre (8:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200), the playoff fortunes of both teams figure to be front and centre in the proceedings. Especially with a mere two weeks remaining in the current campaign, and neither side assured yet of a spot in the post-season.
For Ottawa, it's a matter of simply protecting what they've already earned. Sitting in seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings, the Senators (38-28-10) hold a two-point edge over the Washington Capitals (eighth) and Buffalo Sabres (ninth) and control their own destiny. The 10th-place Jets are in a more dire state, six points out of a playoff position, and a loss tonight could deal a virtual death blow to their hopes.
Sheer desperation, then, should be the theme of the night, and the Senators surely know it. No doubt it'll be obvious in the passion of the Jets faithful as well.
"It's an energetic crowd, for sure," forward Nick Foligno
said following the Senators' pre-game skate earlier this afternoon at the MTS Centre. "We (expect) an energized group because they're trying to get their team into the playoffs. We've got to come in and try to quiet the crowd, just play a real smart road game and hopefully, get the first goal ... They're a tough team, Winnipeg, and they're fighting for their playoff lives."
Added centre Jason Spezza
: "It's been well-documented that their crowd is real supportive and as a visiting player, it's exciting to come into (this atmosphere) and play. They're a real solid team at home, one of the best in the league. So we have to make sure that we're focused off the hop and really try to take away momentum in the first 10 minutes."
Speaking of momentum, the Senators feel like they're riding plenty of it into the Manitoba capital after cooling off the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins 8-4 on Saturday night at Scotiabank Place. It was Ottawa's biggest goal outburst in four years and a most welcome sign for a team that had trouble finding the back of the net in its previous five games.
"Quite a bit, I think," Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson
said when asked what kind of carryover his team might enjoy from handing the Pens their first loss in regulation time in 15 games. "Just the way we played ... no hesitation, just going out there and giving everything we have. We made some mistakes but when we're going, we can overcome them. That's the way it's been for us all year long.
"We've never made it easy for ourselves, but we've always hung in through 60 minutes and that's what we look to do tonight."
Also encouraging was the play of goaltender Craig Anderson
, who come in relief of the injured Ben Bishop
and limited the high-powered Penguins to just one goal in the final 25 minutes of Saturday's contest. While Anderson had a rough outing the night before in Montreal in his first game back after missing four weeks with a right hand injury, he was rock solid when needed against Pittsburgh, stopping 19 of 20 shots he faced.
Anderson is likely to carry the ball for the Senators' remaining six games, especially in the wake of the news delivered by head coach Paul MacLean today that Bishop is likely out two weeks with a lower-body injury. But the team is confident that Anderson, whose play is a big reason they currently reside in a playoff position, can get the job done now.
"The work that he put in during the injury (recovery) period really paid off him going into the Pittsburgh game," said MacLean. "I thought he played real good. He was outstanding through the third period ... we feel real good that he's confident and back to where he needs to be."
Their No. 1 goaltender's return to form also eases the sting of the loss of Bishop, who performed admirably during Anderson's absence.
"It's good timing," Alfredsson said of Anderson's return. "You never want to see anybody getting hurt, but Andy coming back a few days before this happens ... it's great, and he played really well when he came in against Pittsburgh. We look forward to playing well in front of him (tonight).
"He'll make the stops he should and he usually makes a few more. And we can provide some offence for him."
Every goal is vital tonight in a game dripping with playoff race significance.
"We're expecting them to paly real hard and to be a desperate team, just like we are," said MacLean, a former star with the original Jets during his playing days in Winnipeg. "They can look at the standings, too, and we all know where everybody sits ... so we know they're going to be good and they're going to be hungry.
"We know they have a real good home record (23-11-4) and the last time we were in here (a 6-4 Ottawa win on Nov. 29), it was a real good game. That's what we expect again."Around the boards
With only two available callups left this season, the Sens will stick with Alex Auld
as their goaltending backup for the time being instead of summoning Robin Lehner
from the Binghamton Senators. "We have the game tonight and then we have three days to see how Ben recovers," said MacLean. "We have four callups (to use) after the trade deadline and we've used two already, so we want to make sure we don't use any more of them until we need to." ... No lineup changes are expected tonight, meaning forwards Bobby Butler
and Zenon Konopka
, along with blueliner Matt Gilroy
, will be healthy scratches against the Jets ... After tonight's game, the Senators don't see action again until Saturday, when they travel to Philadelphia to take on the Flyers (1 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).