When they clinched a playoff spot on Sunday afternoon in Long Island, most experts were quick to highlight the Senators’ players-only meeting back in October as a significant turning point of the season.
After losing a 7-2 game on home ice to the Philadelphia Flyers on October 18, the Senators were dead last in the NHL, having picked up just one victory in six games. The players had an extended meeting and turned things around, reeling off a six-game winning streak immediately thereafter.
But just ten days ago, there was another meeting that was equally important to the team making the playoffs this spring.
The Senators team bus pulled back into Scotiabank Place around 1:30 a.m. on Saturday March 24, after a humiliating 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens the night before. The players exited the bus as a mentally fragile and defeated group, having lost three consecutive games and culminating with a lackluster performance at the Bell Centre.
About nine hours later, the club’s three captains – Daniel Alfredsson and alternates Jason Spezza and Chris Phillips – were huddled inside the coach’s office for an extended meeting with Paul MacLean. The leadership group was trying to break the team out of an extended malaise, which had seen them score only three goals in three games. Qualifying for the post-season – which seemed like a foregone conclusion in early March – was now in serious jeopardy.
“That was one of those moments where we just wanted to discuss what was going on with Mac. Not hitting the panic button was the big message,” said Spezza.
While the players and coach were frustrated, the meeting was characterized as calm, productive and extremely positive. The coaching staff did not prepare a video tape highlighting the club’s miscues during the losing streak. Instead, it was an open discussion between the club’s leadership and the head coach.
“There was no video at all; it was just us talking straight. What he sees, what we see and what we need to do better,” said Spezza.
“That’s pretty accurate – it wasn’t a meeting to blow things up. It was more about confidence,” added Phillips. “At that point, we had seven games left and we said we’d look at that like a playoff series. If we could win four of those seven, we could put ourselves in a really good position.”
The team’s captains have met with MacLean on a semi-regular basis this season, with about a half-dozen meetings sprinkled throughout the past seven months. But this meeting had a different tone, considering the Senators were on the verge of imploding and falling out of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference. There was a sense of urgency to this gathering, yet the Senators had to figure out how to avoid falling into a mindset where panic was a dominant force.
“Coach mentioned that we were playing a little bit too cautious – like we were happy to just be hanging around games instead of going out and initiating. Stay positive and be more aggressive – I think that was the message,” said Alfredsson. “It’s do or die right now. We can’t wait for anything to happen.”
After wrapping up the meeting with his leadership group, MacLean addressed the whole team prior to the game that night against the Pittsburgh Penguins. According to Alfredsson, the club “rallied” around MacLean’s pre-game speech and it was the catalyst for a convincing 8-4 victory over the Penguins.
It’s interesting to note that the three players who attended the morning meeting – Alfredsson, Spezza and Phillips – all scored goals that night against the Penguins. The trio tried to dismiss the connection between the meeting and their subsequent production that night, but it’s clear that the Senators veterans took a stranglehold on the team that day.
“I think we all took on added responsibility, especially after what happened the night before. We just knew had to bring our best effort,” said Alfredsson, who scored five goals in the three games after the meeting.
Jason Spezza has responded with some of his best offensive work in the past week, also picking up five points in the three games after the meeting. In addition to scoring goals against the Penguins and Flyers, he added three assists – including a highlight reel helper on a Kyle Turris goal – in Winnipeg on Monday night. Ironically, both Spezza and Alfredsson missed Sunday’s playoff-clinching victory at Long Island, but at that point, the club was back on the rails. The feeling of confidence had returned to the entire group, including goaltender Craig Anderson, who has been brilliant since a tough return at the Bell Centre.
As Phillips pointed out, the club tried to look at the final seven games of the regular season as a playoff series. If that was the case, the Senators would have pulled off a clean sweep, winning in four straight games. Even more impressive is the fact that the offence produced 23 goals in those four games and the tentative play that MacLean talked about is now a distant memory.
While the Senators were pegged at the start of the season as a young team in rebuild mode, it’s clear that their success rests in the hands of the veteran players Bryan Murray decided to keep after last season’s house cleaning.
“We all wanted to step up,” said Phillips, who scored a power play goal that night against the Penguins. “We’ve said this all year long: You can talk all you want and say all the right things – but for us – it’s about going out and leading by example.”