OTTAWA — It’s easy to focus solely on the destination when you get swept up in the emotion, not to mention the magic, around a team like this one.
But it would be foolish to underestimate what the Ottawa Senators have accomplished over the last eight weeks no matter how this mad dash for the playoffs turns out.
For all intents and purposes, this group has experienced the post-season already. The pressure, the tension, the wild swings of momentum … we had all of that during Tuesday’s improbable 4-3 overtime victory over Pittsburgh.
Here in the nation’s capital they’ve been living it for so long that time has lost all meaning.
“We’ve been playing overtime now for the last 12 games straight or whatever,” quipped veteran defenceman Marc Methot, his voice hoarse with emotion.
In the big picture, the result itself could actually be viewed negatively. Since Pittsburgh walked away with a point, Ottawa’s chances of sneaking by the Penguins actually got a little worse with just two games left in the regular season.
But no sane person who took in the frenzied rally at Canadian Tire Centre could actually label this a bad thing.
The Sens, after all, had looked completely overmatched against an experienced opponent in the first period. Sidney Crosby, the NHL’s scoring leader, scored just 10 seconds in. Pittsburgh was ahead 3-0 before the intermission.
And yet, somehow, Ottawa refused to go away. There was no hint of doubt or fear or panic as they outshot the Penguins 37-16 in the final two periods and overtime.
“I do know one thing, when you’ve got a 3-0 lead that early in the game you tend to maybe sit back a little bit,” said Methot. “It’s just human nature. I think when you’re down 3-0 it’s your responsibility to jump on them, put a lot of pressure on them because you know they’ll be sitting back a little bit and I think that’s exactly what we did.
“It worked out for us.”
What started off as the fairytale story of Andrew Hammond — the third-string goalie turned Sens saviour in February — has morphed into much more. There is a maturity building among this young core, one head coach Dave Cameron called a “single-minded purpose,” and it is players like Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris and Hammond driving this unexpected 21-4-4 run.
Consider the key performers in Thursday’s must-win game: Stone, all of 22 years old with 101 games of NHL experience, scored early in the third period and again in overtime; Hoffman tied it with 108 seconds left in regulation and Hammond on the bench; and Turris held his own while going head-to-head with Crosby.
What a release Stone has. He’s worked his way into the Calder Trophy conversation with 24 goals, five of which have come in the last four games, and has never enjoyed the sport more.
“I always have fun playing hockey, but playing in these pressure games and finding ways to win them, it doesn’t get much better than that,” said Stone.
After running his record to 18-1-2, Hammond agreed.
“I don’t know if there’s another time in my life (that’s been more fun) — just because it’s the NHL, it’s what I’ve always dreamed about playing,” he said.
There aren’t many teams who show this kind of composure under duress. Ottawa now leads the NHL with an 11-6-3 record in games where they’re trailing after the first period and has won nine games when behind after 40 minutes.
Pittsburgh, by comparison, doesn’t have one of those this season.
“That’s the type of team they are, they never give up,” said Penguins forward David Perron. “It’s been like that for 25 games for them. Everyone thought they were out.”
Not even close.
Ottawa is now tied with Boston at 95 points for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with one extra game played. They are one point back of Pittsburgh and two behind Detroit.
To make the playoffs the Senators likely need road wins against the Rangers and Flyers to finish out the season. Beyond that, some help on the out-of-town scoreboard might be required too.
“We have nothing to lose,” said Ottawa captain Erik Karlsson. “You evaluate everything when you play your last game of the year and we haven’t done that yet.”
This is a team that refuses to let the clock strike midnight.
Given all of the opportunities they’ve had to go quietly, the fight — and the players leading the charge — have been impressive.
“It’s a funny thing,” said Methot. “With this group, our younger guys are pretty mentally strong. There’s not a whole lot you have to say to them. We do try to keep it pretty light in the room, even between periods we’re still kind of joking around.”
Everyone should be better for the experience. No wonder the veterans see this as the start of a stronger foundation.
“We’ve definitely, I think, moved up to the next level,” said forward Clarke MacArthur. “I think our compete level’s better and the way we need to play to win the majority of games throughout a season, I think we’ve figured something out there. It will be positive regardless (of if we make the playoffs), but our goal is much more than that.”
This was the last game Ottawa was guaranteed to play at home this season, and the players gave their sticks away to fans afterwards as a sign of their appreciation. It was quite a scene.
“I love it,” said Methot. “This is what we want. This is why you play the game. You just look at that crowd tonight and this building and it was awesome.”
Something awesome is going on here, all right, even if this run ends before it officially began. What a journey already.