Sens seem to know what to do, now prove it

DON BRENNAN -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 12:09 PM ET


 TORONTO -- It sounds like they get it now.

 That as a team, they understand what it takes to succeed in the playoffs. Not like in the early years, when it was obvious they really had no clue at all.

 Fact is, the message is so ingrained into the fibre of the Senators that even a 21-year-old about to suit up for his first NHL playoff game can rhyme it off the top of his head.

 "I think it's more about character and passion than skills," said winger Antoine Vermette, who is only two decades the junior of Toronto's Ron Francis. "When you float in the playoffs, you don't have a good chance."

 Yeah, it sounds like they get that now, although they still have to prove it.

 Vermette will kill penalties and play on the fourth line, to start, as this highly anticipated opening-round series between the Senators and Maple Leafs gets under way tonight at the Air Canada Centre. How good is this showdown? The eventual losers of it are good enough to win the Stanley Cup.

 Surely, a greenhorn like Vermette is already feeling the butterflies, right?

 "No, no. Not at all," he insisted. "I just want to win. It's just like another playoff I've been through. I want to win, bottom line. The playoffs are a pretty simple game. It's hard work, up and down. That's the way I'm looking to play."

 Senators defenceman Brian Pothier also spoke matter-of-factly about his approach to this post-season tournament. But then, when it comes to NHL playoffs, he's the seasoned veteran Vermette is not. Pothier already has one game under his belt. Last spring against the Islanders. Remember? No? Ah, that's okay. His impact was far greater with the Binghamton Senators, for whom Pothier had two goals and eight assists in eight playoff games.

 JUST MISSED CUP

 Less than 12 months later, the native of New Bedford, Mass. starts the Battle of Ontario as Wade Redden's blue-line partner. That job belonged to Karel Rachunek last time the Senators played such meaningful games, you'll recall. It was also a mix-up by that tandem which resulted in a goal by New Jersey's Jeff Friesen late Game 7, and the Senators collapsing at the entrance to the Stanley Cup final.

 One error. One goal. One dream dies at the doorstep of realization.

 No pressure here.

 "You have to get over that fear of messing up," said Pothier, who turns 27 in one week. "You have to go out there and say, 'all right, I'm not going to think about making mistakes, I'm just going to go out and play hard and do my thing.' You can't worry about making mistakes, that's when you get nervous ... you just have to go out and play.

 "It's going to be a battle, it's going to be a war, it's going to be a lot of fun."

 POTHIER A SURVIVOR

 Pothier, meanwhile, is a survivor. He was a healthy scratch 16 times this season, including the opener against Montreal back on Oct. 9. A concussion/neck injury kept him out of another 11. But long after the departure of Rachunek and fellow fringe defenceman Shane Hnidy, Pothier crawls out of the rubble as the No. 4 guy on the depth chart.

 "It's been a long year," he said. "It sounds like a stupid cliche, but all you can really do is just work hard and bite your tongue ... just try to be a good soldier."

 Pothier says he's learned a lot from Redden.

 "He's a phenomenal player, I feel privileged to play with him," he said. "If he's not the best, he's one of the best defencemen in the league. I think he's one of the smartest. He moves the puck better than anyone I've ever seen. I'm at the rink every day watching him, watching the things he does on the ice, and just really try to learn from that. It's a great opportunity to be in that situation, to go to war with him. We're starting to click a little bit, we've only had a few games together, but we're getting to know each other and I'm sure it will continue to get better."

 Also relatively raw, but with an important role to play, is Anton Volchenkov, who this season missed 52 games with a shoulder injury a short while after missing seven with a concussion.

 Talk about a sophomore jinx, huh? At least the 22-year-old from Moscow played (impressively) in 17 of Ottawa's 18 post-season games last spring. Currently, he is partnered with Greg de Vries as Ottawa's fifth and sixth defenceman.

 "It's my second playoffs and I played in Russian playoffs and the world championships," shrugged Volchenkov. "I like playoffs. When the team wins, it's good."

 Yeah, they get that now, too.


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