Only an April fool would believe the Senators didn’t feel any extra motivation to make the playoffs this season.
In the back of their minds was always the bitter disappointment of missing them a year ago.
“I remember driving around the city when the season was done, and not having to go to the rink, and the playoffs were just starting,” Chris Kelly said Tuesday. “It was a sick feeling.
“We set the bar pretty high here. We want to be in the post-season each and every year, and contending to win.
“Last year, we didn’t do that and I think we let a lot of people down. We let ourselves down, not being able to compete for the Stanley Cup. To be one win away from where we want to be is definitely a good feeling.”
Yes, the Senators need to earn just one more point to clinch their 12th playoff berth since claiming their first, 13 seasons ago. They have five games to do it, but obviously there’s an urgency to get the job done Thursday at Scotiabank Place against Carolina.
The Hurricanes, who need to win out in order to have any hope of qualifying for the playoffs, hammered a nail in Ottawa’s coffin last March 25 when they ended Ottawa’s five-game winning streak.
“It’s just one of our goals, it’s obviously not our ultimate goal,” said coach Cory Clouston. “But it sets us in position to reach our goal. We felt we were a playoff team right from Day 1. We felt we were a playoff team last year, the last, whatever it was, 30-plus games. We’ve just proved it.
“We’re playing with confidence right now. We know that once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen. As long as you’re healthy, playing the way we’re playing right now, we feel we can do some damage in the playoffs as well.”
Making his debut in the Senators lineup against the ’Canes will be University of New Hampshire scoring star Bobby Butler, who on Wednesday also found out he’s one of the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the top U.S. college hockey player.
Butler will take the roster spot of Zack Smith, who was returned to Binghamton.
Also suiting up will be defenceman Anton Volchenkov, who suffered an upper-body injury while accidentally on the receiving end of a big body check by teammate Andy “Mount” Sutton in Saturday’s game against Florida. Volchenkov missed Tuesday’s 5-4 overtime victory in Washington that extended the Senators’ winning streak to five games.
“Feels much better than it did a couple of days ago,” said Volchenkov. “Still a bit tight, but not bad.”
Asked if he owes Sutton one, Volchenkov laughed.
“No, no, no,” he said. “Maybe in a practice, but not in a game.”
Getting closer to making a return is Milan Michalek, who has missed six games with a knee injury. Michalek, the team’s leading goal scorer with 22 when he went down, might not have his old job when he gets back, however. Jason Spezza’s left winger is likely to be Peter Regin for the foreseeable future.
Spezza is playing his best hockey when the games are supposed to be the tightest- checking, having scored eight points in his last three games and 12 in his past six. But his whole line is on fire, combining for nine points in the 5-4 victory over the league leader.
While Daniel Alfredsson has 19 points in 13 games since the break, Regin, a rookie, has a three-game goal-scoring streak and four in his last five games.
“He’s had some chemistry with that line, I think him and Jason have fed off of each other,” Clouston said of Regin. “He’s got the skill, he’s got the talent, and obviously he’s playing with confidence right now. He’s skating and competing very well.
“(Keeping him on that line) is a possibility, for sure. It gives you a lot more flexibility.”
Regin, who was on the fourth line before stepping into a spot that helped make Dany Heatley more millions, is enjoying the increased role.
“It’s all about winning,” he said. “Nobody cares if you score when you don’t win. Especially now, going into the playoffs. The playoffs are coming soon and we had kind of a slump there for a while, but I think we’ve turned it around now. We’re on a roll and hopefully we can keep it going.”