OTTAWA - The Ottawa Senators are on the brink of advancing in the NHL playoffs, but according to coach Paul MacLean they are "scared to death."
The Senators have a 3-1 lead over the rival Canadiens heading into Game 5 Thursday in Montreal. MacLean has done his best to deflect attention from his players during the emotional series and Wednesday afternoon was no different as he spoke to the media.
As the Senators prepare to clinch the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final, MacLean is doing his best to make his team appear as the underdog.
"We're scared to death," said MacLean of Game 5. "I know I am. We know it's going to be really hard. Tomorrow is going to be a hard game and we have to make sure we're ready for that no matter what they have or who they play. It's going to be hard."
Last year the Senators had a 3-2 series lead over the New York Rangers, but went on to lose the next two games. They're hopeful they've learned from that experience.
"We're going to find out tomorrow if we learned any lessons," MacLean said. "We can talk about it, speak about it and address it, but it's actually done on the ice when the puck drops. That's when we'll find out for sure."
The Senators have a perfect 7-0 record when leading a series 3-1, but the last time the Senators won three straight playoff games was 2007 and only four players—Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Phillips, Jason Spezza and Chris Neil—remain from that team.
Neil believes the team should be more than able to handle the pressure, with veteran leadership and the experience a number of its younger players earned in Binghamton when they won the Calder Cup in 2011
"It's getting a taste of winning and some of our young guys got that and for some of the older guys they have felt the bitterness of losing," Neil said. "Whenever you have a team on the ropes you've got to be able to put them down and that’s our mindset. We just have to play the game of games."
The Senators know they can't afford to wait until the last ten minutes of the game to try and take control as they did Tuesday in Game 4, where they scored two late goals in regulation before winning in overtime. The Canadiens had easily been the better team for much of the game and if not for a few lucky breaks the Senators could easily be heading to Montreal with the series tied.
But this has been a season of resiliency for the Senators, and Tuesday's game may have been the perfect analogy of what has made Ottawa successful.
Few gave the Senators any chance of reaching the playoffs after lengthy injuries to Spezza, star defenceman Erik Karlsson and starting goaltender Craig Anderson decimated the team in the regular season. But the Senators' depleted lineup found a way to keep winning and from that players gained a sense of confidence in one another which is now reaping rewards.
It's why when trailing 2-0 heading into the third the team still felt it had the ability to get back in Tuesday's game.
"It's nice to know that we can persevere in a game," said defenceman Eric Gryba. "We kind of laid an egg in the first half of the game or even arguably the first two periods, so to be able to come back and show the character that's in this locker-room and battle back to win the game is really a testament to our leadership and the guys in this locker-room."
The Senators could be facing a very different team in Montreal Thursday as Carey Price is listed as day-to-day with a lower body injury, while Brandon Prust and Ryan White are out with upper body injuries. Captain Brian Gionta, who missed Game 2 and Game 4, will undergo surgery Friday for a torn bicep tendon and is done for the season.
The Senators say they can't concern themselves with who is or isn't in the lineup as they need to focus on their own game.
"We have to focus on playing the right way," Gryba said. "If you're thinking about who’s in or out you're probably not thinking about the right things anyway. We have to keep our focus and keep our heads on straight."
At this point the Senators know the importance of keeping a narrow focus and avoiding the pitfalls of distraction.
"We just have to play our game for the full 60 minutes and not stray from it," said forward Kyle Turris. "If we play our game we don't have to worry too much about our opponent."
Notes: Spezza appears to be making progress in his rehabilitation, but still remains a ways away from joining the team for practice. According to MacLean, Spezza has progressed past public skating and is in the next stage of his rehab.