When it was mentioned to Jason Spezza a few days ago that the Senators could do some serious damage to the playoff aspirations of their provincial rivals this weekend, his eyes lit up and a smile spread across his face.
“Yeah, we wouldn’t like that too much,” the Toronto-born Ottawa centre said with a mischeviously sarcastic tone.
But as the final Battle of Ontario approaches — and with so much on the line for the visitors — Spezza and his teammates are more concerned about continuing to play well than what a victory would do to the Maple Leafs.
Fact is, it will take a minor miracle for Toronto to qualify for the post-season. With four games left, the Leafs are five points behind the eighth-place Rangers. And they have to hop over the Carolina Hurricanes — whom they trail by two and have played one more game than — to catch the Rangers.
If the Leafs’ hopes of reaching the playoffs are slim now, the Senators could render them almost non-existent with a win at Scotiabank Place Saturday night.
“We’re not going to look at it that way,” said coach Cory Clouston, whose team is 9-5-1 in its last 15 games. “We know what it’s like, obviously, being on the outside right now. And it’s not a good feeling. Our focus isn’t to send somebody packing or to dash their playoff hopes. That’s not our goal. Our goal is just to win the game. Our motivation is not to knock the Leafs out of a playoff spot.”
The players were also playing coy.
“Any time you can play spoiler, it’s always a fun time,” said Nick Foligno, who scored his 100th career point in Thursday’s win over the Panthers. “We’re just looking to try and win that game, and not really worry about what the circumstances are. We want to build on (the Florida) game. We thought we played really well, as a road game, and now come back here and feed off the energy of our fans, and get their fans out of it early.”
When pressed on the added significance of being able to deal the Leafs hopes a crushing blow, Foligno relented, saying it would be special.
“For sure. Absolutely. It would be a lot of fun.
“We’re not looking at it as the Toronto Maple Leafs against the world, but we want to make it difficult on them.”
The young players on the Senators roster are already getting a taste of what the rivalry with the Leafs means.
“I played in Toronto, it was my second game, and that was probably the most exciting game I’ve played so far here,” said Erik Condra. “That crowd and that atmosphere was unbelievable. Hopefully it’s a good atmosphere in here.
“I don’t think we talk about (being spoilers) that much, but we do it, and we’re just playing hard,” he added. “Like guys have said, we’re all playing for spots next year.”
The Leafs, who practised Friday at the Sensplex, say they won’t be taking the Senators lightly.
“It’s the NHL. There are no bad players or bad teams,” said goalie James Reimer. “Everyone wants to prove they can play, even if you are not in the playoffs. You want to prove to your teammates that you want to stay in this league. Ottawa is fighting for jobs and they have some good players.”
Added coach Ron Wilson: “Ottawa has certainly played really well with all their young guys, as we have, so it will be a tough game.”