Eugene Melnyk couldn't be more pleased with the way his Ottawa Senators have handled their latest bout of adversity.
The team's owner was in the house at Scotiabank Place on Tuesday night, watching with delight as the Senators whipped the Chicago Blackhawks, who entered the game No. 1 overall in the National Hockey League standings. It further buoyed Melnyk's belief that a healthy Sens team is building toward serious playoff contender status.
"On (CFRA) radio today, I promised the city of Ottawa that we'd go deep into the playoffs, so I can't recant on that one," a smiling Melnyk said earlier today after sitting among an equally happy group of players for the annual team photo. "We’ve got all these players that are coming back (from injuries). We’ve got Jason (Spezza) coming back very soon, you’ve got (Milan) Michalek coming back. Eventually (Jesse) Winchester and Pascal (Leclaire).
"On paper, at the beginning of the season, this was an elite team – one of the top five teams in the league. And now they’re starting to show their stuff and it can only get better because of all the injured players coming back."
Melnyk has been particularly impressed with the Senators' perseverance through a rash of injuries that, at one point, saw them without their entire No. 1 line (Spezza, Michalek and captain Daniel Alfredsson
) and key defenceman Filip Kuba
. With both goaltenders sidelined, Ottawa had to turn to Binghamton callup Mike Brodeur last Thursday in New York, but his shutout performance ignited the team's current four-game winning streak.
Quite the turnaround for a team that, until the win over the Rangers, had been staggered by a five-game losing streak. But through it all, they maintained a grip on an Eastern Conference playoff position.
"Just take any roster in the NHL and wipe out their top line, wipe out one of their best faceoff people (Winchester), one of their best defenceman and – just for fun – take out their two goalies," said Melnyk. "What do you expect? The fact is, this group of players has come back and been able to win four in a row and we’re just going to get better and better as the season progresses."
"I think it’s the grit (they've shown). I think it’s the determination. It’s the fact that they’ve been able to step up. A lot of teams would just fold, absolutely fold. But when you’re that deep in the hole, losing five in a row, and then turn it around into a positive ... it just speaks to the character of the team. I couldn’t be happier with them." - Eugene Melnyk
What's been the most gratifying part of it all?
"I think it’s the grit (they've shown)," said Melnyk. "I think it’s the determination. It’s the fact that they’ve been able to step up. A lot of teams would just fold, absolutely fold. But when you’re that deep in the hole, losing five in a row, and then turn it around into a positive ... it just speaks to the character of the team. I couldn’t be happier with them."
No wonder the mood was especially jolly for the team photo shoot.
"I think we picked the day right," said Melnyk. "It’s great to see the players are upbeat and they’re anxious to play again … tonight, if they could. We’ve got some tough games ahead of us but we’ve played some tough games. We spanked the No. 1 team in the league last night very convincingly, and it’s just great to see (us) hurting Boston and New York. That’s why you see all the smiles."
Melnyk also believes the excitement of the stretch run should help boost the team's ticket sales as the post-season draws closer.
"I think it's just a question of time before people really start jumping on the bandwagon," he said. "I think it's starting now. We're seeing that with people just walking up. In this playoff run – we've got 13 home games left – we'll be doing very well.
"It's getting into a tight playoff race and it's going to continue to be tight. That creates a lot of excitement and you want to be here. I'm hoping for the best."