OTTAWA – There appears to be no situation the Ottawa Senators are unwilling to throw a young player into.
It speaks to the confidence the organization has in its American Hockey League team in Binghamton that 21-year-old winger Mark Stone is set to draw into the lineup for Game 4 against the Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday night.
He is expected to replace Cory Conacher on Jason Spezza’s wing — a great opportunity for a player with just five total games of NHL experience.
It follows a trend that has developed under coach Paul MacLean, whose style of play is being taught throughout the organization and has allowed players to make a seamless transition to the big team.
“First of all, they’re good players and when we put them in they play well,” MacLean said after Wednesday’s morning skate at Scotiabank Place. “They do things right and the way that we want them done. They have a great work ethic and they know how we want to play.
“It makes it easier for them to get in the lineup.”
Stone made his NHL debut during last year’s playoffs against the New York Rangers and set up Spezza for a goal in a Game 5 win at Madison Square Garden. He only appeared in four games for the Senators this season, but expressed confidence that he could make an immediate impact.
“I’ve been known to be a bit of a scorer in my past,” said Stone, a sixth-round pick in 2010. “I’m looking to come here and get to the net and try to do the same thing.”
At 6-foot-2, Stone should be better equipped to fight for space than the 5-foot-8 Conacher. MacLean indicated that the reason for removing Conacher — who had three goals in a first-round win over Montreal – came down to a “numbers game.”
The Senators haven’t been shy about juggling different players through the lineup.
Last spring, Jakob Silfverberg also made his NHL debut in the playoffs and MacLean has elected to continue using little-known centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau this post-season.
Spezza believes one of the reasons it has worked so well is that the team has a relaxed and welcoming dressing room. Captain Daniel Alfredsson indicated that he and the other veteran players have tried to remove all of the pressure from the rookies.
“It’s awesome, I mean what an opportunity?” Alfredsson said of Stone. “I feel more for a guy like Conacher that has to get out of the lineup. It’s a great opportunity for (Stone) – he just has to go in and play, I don’t think there’s a lot of pressure on him.”
Trailing 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, the Senators spoke about the importance of registering their fourth straight win on home ice in these playoffs. The season is essentially riding on it.
It won’t be an easy task against the heavily-favoured Penguins.
“They’re the best team in the league and there’s a reason for that,” said Ottawa defenceman Marc Methot. “They don’t put themselves in vulnerable positions. People can say that (we’re) not playing physical, but we’re trying. They’re the best hockey team in the league.
“That’s because they have the puck on their sticks and they don’t put themselves in vulnerable spots.”
Ottawa narrowly escaped Game 3 with a victory after Alfredsson tied the game on a short-handed goal with less than 30 seconds to play and Colin Greening scored the winner in double overtime.
Even though the game was followed by two off days, the Sens didn’t think their opposition would be stewing over the defeat.
“They’ve got a lot to feel good about,” said goalie Craig Anderson. “They’re still up in the series 2-1. I highly doubt they’re dwelling on the last game.”
Even as an underdog, Ottawa wasn’t ready to concede anything to the top seed in the Eastern Conference just yet. They believe the Penguins are beatable.
“There’s pressure from ourselves to perform to our level,” said Alfredsson. “But other than that, if you try to pick a team who’s favoured, it’s hard not to pick Pittsburgh. We know that we can play with them. We can beat them if we play really well.
“That’s the fun challenge in it — can we as a young team go out there and disrupt them enough to get them off their game plan and work to our advantage?