Given the Eastern Conference playoff picture, it might seem like things would be more tense for the Ottawa Senators for their Monday road game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
After all, the Penguins (34-25-10, 78 points) currently hold down a wild-card spot in the conference, giving them a level of control over their postseason destiny. Ottawa (33-31-5, 71 points), in turn, faces long odds and teams to leapfrog to have any hope of playing beyond the regular season.
And yet it is Pittsburgh that is in some sense reeling.
The Penguins, only about a week ago, seemed to have not only a stronger hold on a playoff berth but even some possible upward mobility. Then things went sour.
Pittsburgh had an unusual setup of three games in seven days against the third-place team in the Metropolitan Division, the New York Rangers, with a chance to close the gap between the two.
Instead, the Penguins won the first meeting in overtime at home, then lost back-to-back games in New York, 4-2 Thursday and a 6-0 shellacking Saturday that coach Mike Sullivan called “a humbling experience for all of us.”
Throw in a loss to Montreal that interrupted the three games against the Rangers, and the Penguins have lost three straight by a combined 16-6.
With 13 games left, there is no time to wallow.
“At this time of year, we have to have a short memory,” Sullivan said. “For all intents and purposes, we’re in the playoffs right now.
“We’re playing with our backs against the wall. We’ve got an opportunity to solidify a playoff spot. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Pittsburgh No. 1 goaltender Tristan Jarry was pulled Saturday for the third time in his past seven starts. His teammates have been making it harder by allowing odd-man breaks and strong scoring chances on a regular basis.
“If we can limit those (good chances against), we give ourselves a really good chance,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said.
Sooner would be a lot more helpful than later for Pittsburgh.
Ottawa, meanwhile, had lost four games in a row in regulation before falling Saturday against Toronto 5-4 in a shootout, extending the skid to five games but gaining a point after overcoming a two-goal, third-period deficit.
That was enough to boost the Senators’ confidence going into the game against Pittsburgh despite sitting seven points behind the Penguins.
“I thought we played a really good game,” Ottawa defenseman Travis Hamonic said. “A ton of positives we can take out of this game.”
A game that put the Senators seemingly in a better mindset than the Penguins.
“The boys definitely showed a lot of excitement and (a) will to work extremely hard and go after the two points,” Ottawa goaltender Mads Sogaard said.
Captain Brady Tkachuk, who scored twice in the third to tie it and reach 30 goals, called Saturday “another night where I thought we deserved to win.”
After playing Monday in Pittsburgh, the Senators head to Boston to take on the top team in the NHL a night later.
“They’re big games for us,” Tkachuk said. “We need to focus on how we need to play and what makes us successful.”
–Field Level Media