With the Atlanta Thrashers in Ottawa on Saturday, the Senators are still looking for their first victory of the season in three games against the Southeast Division leaders.
But for a team that’s often been praised for its skill and ripped for its lack of heart, the Senators have already won big this year.
Each time they’ve been set up to fall – whether through lineup changes, slumps, injuries and, most recently, suspension – the Senators have shown their most valuable asset to be their resolve.
“We’ve had games this year where we needed a big win and we’ve come through with that,” defenceman Wade Redden said following Friday’s practice. “The whole month of January we knew that was going to be the time that makes or breaks us, and we lost one or two games.
“Obviously we’ve got to have that intensity and that desperation for the remainder now to be where we want to be, but I think we’ve got that confidence in each other to be able to win games and tight games.
“Right from the goalie out, everyone feels good about each other here.”
On Friday, the Senators recalled goaltender Kelly Guard from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Binghamton Senators.
With much of the focus of the NHL world on Nashville after the biggest trade of the season landed superstar Peter Forsberg with the Predators, the Senators can, perhaps for the first time, look within their own locker-room to inspire hope for a long playoff run.
They’re able to do so because they took a step back to get where they are now.
“There’s quite a few of us here who have paid our dues,” captain Daniel Alfredsson said.
The Senators (33-22-3), currently fifth in the Eastern Conference standings, tied a franchise record with 52 regular-season wins a year ago.
They faced tough sledding this season, however, struggling to reach the .500 mark at the Christmas break.
An off-season talent drain saw the departures of Zdeno Chara, Martin Havlat and Dominik Hasek, among others, leaving Ottawa shorter on skill than in the past and the early season struggles of new faces, like goaltender Martin Gerber, and the quiet starts of old ones, like Alfredsson, didn’t help matters.
Nor did lengthy injury absences to Redden (17 games), Jason Spezza (14 games) or Mike Fisher (14 games).
But with each bump in the road, such as the recent three-game suspension to breakout goaltender Ray Emery, the Senators have emerged not only unscathed, but the better for it.
“Our work ethic has been much better lately,” coach Bryan Murray said. “We weren’t very good without the puck early on. I thought we tried to do too many things with the puck too many times early in the year.
“I think the players are more comfortable now with each other.”
Gerber’s a perfect example of their resolve. Rarely able to get a game when Emery is available for selection, he made just his fourth start in two months Wednesday with Emery serving the first of a three-game ban for slashing Montreal’s Maxim Lapierre.
Gerber responded with 28 saves in a shutout of the Florida Panthers.
“Facing the challenges we had early on when we weren’t winning, then the injuries, the same thing,” Alfredsson said. “It just tells you that the good thing is, if you go through adversity and see you can come out strong from it, it should only help.”
Expectations have been a tough thing for Ottawa to live up to in the past, so flying under the radar seems to be working in their favour.
“We’ve kind of got caught up in other years, especially when we played against Toronto (in the playoffs), with the hype surrounding it and the expectations,” Redden said. “We let the pressure get to us a bit.
“You learn from that, that you’ve just got to go out and play the game. Whether it’s the first shift of the first game or the last shift of the last game, we know that we’ve got to be going full out and that’s everyone’s got to be pulling together. That’s what it really comes down to for us.”