|Senators goaltender Craig Anderson searches for the puck under Maple Leafs forwards Tim Brent (right) and Jay Rosehill at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Feb. 19, 2011. (FRED THORNHILL/Reuters)
OTTAWA — The Senators will have precious few memories to savour this summer when they clean out lockers next week.
Picked by many people — including this corner — to repeat as the second-best team in the Northeast Division and fifth in the conference, they have instead sunk low enough to fill Toronto’s unenviable role as an Eastern Conference doormat, saved from last overall by the Edmonton Oilers. Coach Cory Clouston is already a goner by most accounts and a housecleaning of the roster has been ongoing since mid-season.
But the Sens would be able to go golfing with some satisfaction, if they can play a role in sending the Leafs to the next tee.
Their big chance comes Saturday at Scotiabank Place, the last Battle of Ontario for 2010-11. An Ottawa win could put the Leafs out pending Sunday’s results, a reversal of fortune as it’s usually Toronto coming in here well behind the Bytowners, but looking to get in the last shot. In six of the previous seven years, the Sens have finished higher.
Ottawa defenceman Chris Phillips say the Sens know their job quite well by this dreary stage of the schedule.
“That’s been our role for a little while now, being that far back to play the spoiler,” Phillips told QMI Agency. “Doesn’t matter who you’re playing, if they’re in a fight for home ice, or making the playoffs or whatever. We’ve used that motivation for a while now and it’s no different (Saturday) night.”
Forward Nick Foligno hoped to make it a long ride back to Toronto for the Leafs and their anticipated large entourage of travelling fans.
“Any time you can play spoiler, it’s always a fun time,” Foligno said. “We want to build on (Thursday’s win in Florida). 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.
“It would be a lot of fun (to virtually eliminate the Leafs). I think obviously we’ve got to make sure we play at our best, but they’re going to be a hungry team. Hopefully, we can do some damage.”
For the 10th-place Leafs, every opponent, above or below them, rival or not, represents the same point value. After the Sens, next week, it’s the Washington Capitals at home, off to New Jersey and then Game 82 against the Canadiens, an ACC doozy if it still means something in the race. For the short term, the Leafs need to beat the Sens and survive at least to Tuesday. But lose and it could be all done by Sunday.
“We’re not tip-toeing through any of these games,” coach Ron Wilson said. “We’ve been on the attack the last couple of months.
“We played two teams out of it in the west (Colorado and Minnesota) and played really well. I think our focus is where it should be, worrying about ourselves. But Ottawa has certainly played really well with all their young guys, as we have, so it will be a tough game tomorrow.”
The Leafs are 17-7-5 since Feb. 1.
“We think we can run the next four games,” Wilson said. “Obviously, we have to hope some teams lose complete grip of the pole and it looks like some teams are thinking about that. We’d like to be higher up in the standings, but when you push like this with positive energy, it’s a lot easier to get ready for games, rather than the dread of letting a playoff spot go.”