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Sens' Binghamton grads primed for pressure cooker

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
After their Calder Cup-winning experience of a year ago, Zack Smith (left) and Erik Condra are among the Binghamton grads now in Ottawa who know all about pressure games (Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images).

The scenario — and the inherent pressure that goes along with it — is eerily familiar.

Less than two weeks to go in the season, a playoff berth clearly in sight but hardly secure ... yes, the "Binghamton brigade" that currently occupies a large chunk of the Ottawa Senators dressing room has seen this story before. Especially the dramatic final few chapters that figure to come in rather handy right now, as the Senators make their final push toward the post-season.

After all, it was just a year ago that the Binghamton Senators — their roster depleted by numerous callups to Ottawa — had to scratch and claw their way to the American Hockey League playoffs, a status that wasn't confirmed until three days remained in the regular season. Two hard months later, the B-Sens hoisted the Calder Cup for the first time in franchise history on a steamy June evening at the Toyota Center in Houston.

The ups and downs of that remarkable run provided the kind of lessons the seven "Binghamton grads" currently on the Ottawa roster — forwards Colin Greening, Zack Smith, Erik Condra, Bobby Butler, Jim O'Brien and Kaspars Daugavins, along with blueliner Jared Cowen, a key post-season addition to the lineup — figure to lean on heavily in the days and weeks ahead.

"The experience factor, that helps us," Greening said of the B-Sens' drive to the Calder Cup. "You go through a hard-fought four series like we did last year in the playoffs, it has to carry over. You have that in the back of your mind, that you've dealt with that situation before and got through it and were able to come out on top.

"So that confidence helps us a lot."

It's a battle-tested group that Senators general manager Bryan Murray also knew had to come through in a big way for his team to have any shot at contending for the playoffs this season. They've more than done their part to this point, but there is still a job to finish over the final five games of the season. While Ottawa (39-28-10) currently holds down seventh spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Buffalo Sabres and Washington Capitals are still nipping at their heels.

"That’s the difference in our team," Murray said of the benefits that Senators have gained from the Binghamton grads. "When we talked about expectations at the start of the year … a lot of these guys have lived it. They’ve gone through it, they know the pressure, they handled it and they rebounded in a couple of cases from real tough situations where they may not have made the playoffs or could have lost early in the first round. And they found a way to do otherwise.

"I really think that has had a big influence on our team and certainly the way different individuals have played."

While some might suggest there is a rather hefty gulf between the AHL and NHL — and there is no denying that's the case — playoff pressure is playoff pressure. Ask anyone who's been through it, and they'll tell you the road to a Calder Cup crown is a huge grind in its own way. And the value of the kind of character it takes to get there can't be understated.

"We know what it's like to play in high-pressure games and it's getting toward that (time) this season," said Smith. "We've still got to make the playoffs, but to play in high-pressure games like that and to know that your season is on the line in a certain game ... it's something you can't teach. You just have to go through it.

"I know it was the AHL, but it's not easy winning in that league. It's pretty tough."

As they have all season, the Senators will no doubt lean heavily on the likes of captain Daniel Alfredsson, top scorers Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, goaltender Craig Anderson and veteran blueliners Chris Phillips, Filip Kuba and Sergei Gonchar the rest of the way. But the youthful supporting cast, many of whom filled the same role in Binghamton, have to step up as well.

"The veteran guys have really provided a lot of leadership but, in saying of all that, there’s no question we need every one of our young guys to play hard and well," said Murray. "If the veterans can show how to do it and lead the way, they’re probably going to get a little more ice time. But we’ve counted so heavily on a lot of young guys this year that we have to continue to have them play well."

If recent history means anything, count on them being ready to answer the bell when it matters the most.

"It was a tough championship to win," Condra said of what it took to hoist the hardware a year ago. "We also had some skilled guys down there, like (Ryan) Keller and (Ryan) Potulny and (Corey) Locke, that did the job. Then you have the meat and bones in the middle of the team, and that's who came up here.

"Now it's the same thing here, where you have Spezza, Alfredsson and (Milan) Michalek and those guys taking the front load of the goal scoring and leading this team. Hopefully, we can be the meat and bones again here that keeps things solid every night and helps us out ... we've won together before, so why can't we do that here?"

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