It's all up to Sens

ERIN NICKS -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:07 AM ET

If the Senators were looking for a formidable playoff foe, they may have found one.

But sorry, Buffalo.

We weren't talking about you.

No disrespect meant to the Sabres -- they presented themselves as an evenly matched opponent to the high-flying, offensively capable Senators -- as demonstrated on Friday night.

The biggest enemy facing the Sens may be found in the mirror. And tomorrow, they will do battle with it for the first time in these playoffs.

Quickly but quietly, the stars have been aligning for Ottawa to make a legitimate run for the Stanley Cup. The Senators caught their first break when Toronto was eliminated from the playoffs. Their current opponent, Buffalo, took care of Philadelphia -- another noted rival.

Ottawa will also benefit from the removal of either New Jersey or Carolina in the other Eastern semi-final series, should the Sens be fortunate enough to advance.

In the West, the much-ballyhooed Detroit Red Wings are history. The Hart/Vezina trophy-finalist Miikka Kiprusoff and his Flames are nowhere to be found.

The Senators' mantra is to maintain a one-game-at-a-time mentality. But a fan doesn't need to be so strict.

One can observe in this year's playoffs, an eventual path for the Sens being paved with parity and a complete lack of built-in alibis.

There will be no heated rivalries coming down Highway 401, and no question of a potential mental block. There will be no Philadelphia, bringing intimidation and undoubtedly, a number of visits to the infirmary.

No one is jumping the gun here, because there are still many challenges ahead. And after Friday's disappointing loss, the Senators will be given their first opportunity to demonstrate the true character that critics have claimed they lack.

The "character" black cloud has hung over the Senators' heads for years, and occasionally it's been masked by other variables: Weak goaltending, significant injuries or plain bad luck. Inevitably, it's always referenced.

But this is a relatively healthy team with significant depth, and it is facing an opponent that, while capable, shouldn't strike fear into the hearts of any player wearing red, black and gold.

Character, killer instinct or grit --whatever you want to call it -- it's an intangible that the opposition can't prepare for. They can only attempt to match the intensity level.

NHL fans will be watching to see how the Senators respond to this first significant roadblock, when they take to the ice tomorrow.

Analysts and fans recognize that Ottawa possesses the ability to do battle with the Sabres, and potentially any other team left in the playoffs.

But they must battle themselves first, and outwardly demonstrate the character that Stanley Cup champions are made of.

NET GAINS: Hot Shots is extremely fond of both Vesa Toskala and Ilya Bryzgalov, and saw either as a key pickup for the Sens at the trade deadline -- a revelation that, at the time, caused my sanity to be questioned. Toskala specifically has demonstrated that he can handle the No. 1 role, by squelching any nagging references to inconsistency. He sizzled down the stretch, racking up 14 wins in March and April. If the Finnish goalie can take the Sharks deep into the playoffs, Evgeni Nabokov may be on his way out of San Jose.

STAR SEARCH: The Wall Street Journal published an article last week referencing the NHL's efforts to get celebrities out to games. Apparently, their efforts were met with mixed results. They managed to land Survivor "star" Jeff Probst, but Steve Carell, from NBC's The Office, turned them down. Reportedly a VIP pass, good for any playoff games at any time, was also sent to George Clooney. How much do you think that would go for on eBay?

BEHIND THE TIMES: I don't know whether to praise or criticize ESPN's SportsNation. They made an effort to discuss hockey by having Jason Spezza participate in Thursday's online chat. But the picture they displayed featured the forward wearing his old No. 44.

WINNING TUNE: Best goal song heard in the playoffs thus far? Pennywise's Bro Hymn, selected by the Mighty Ducks. A local connection (the band is from nearby Hermosa Beach), combined with an original and aggressive hook, made for an excellent selection.

HOT SHOTS: The Arizona Cardinals have sold out of season tickets for next year -- the team hasn't had a home sellout since 2000. Tickets went fast when fans were told they'd receive an advance copy of any home movies eventually made by Matt Leinart and his new girlfriend, Paris Hilton.

ERINNICKS@YAHOO.CA


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