It was easy to write off the Ottawa Senators in mid-February, when suddenly injuries left them without three of their top players.
Jason Spezza played just the first five games of the season before a herniated disc in his back required surgery. Then a right knee problem sidelined Milan Michalek and caused him to miss 25 of 27 games from Feb. 13 through April 11. And on the same day Michalek missed his first game, reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson suffered a lacerated left Achilles tendon and has been out ever since. If that wasn’t enough, starting in late February, starting goaltender Craig Anderson missed 18 games with a sprained ankle.
But somehow the Senators, a group composed of both grizzled veterans and plucky youngsters, didn’t simply cope with the absence of some of their best players — they managed to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
“I think this season has a lot to do with our leadership group, they’ve kept us through some times when we’ve been down,” said winger Erik Condra, who is in his second full NHL season. Condra cited the efforts of captain Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Philips and Chris Neil, who “really kept us young guys afloat.”
Ottawa has gone 15-8-4 since losing Karlsson to injury, weathered recent struggles – the Senators lost five straight before their current three-game winning streak — and sits sixth in the East with 50 points. Alfredsson said the Senators have done a good job of making the best of what they have this season and not allowing the injuries to be a ready-made excuse.
“You don’t try to look for excuses. The one thing you know if you do you’re not giving yourself a great chance,” Alfredsson said. “If you don’t it might not work out but you know you gave it everything you had and I think that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Alfredsson believes the Senators’ mix of older players and young up-and-comers has proved beneficial in navigating this unpredictable season as well. “Young enthusiasm is rubbing off on us older guys, and I think our experience helps them calm down in some situations,” Alfredsson said.
Among those on Senators’ roster who have played at least 28 games this season, five – Condra, Colin Greening, Jim O’Brien and defensemen Patrick Wiercioch and Eric Gryba – are home-grown players who worked their way up through the AHL’s Binghamton Senators together and won the Calder Cup in 2011. They’re all in their rookie or second NHL season but play important rolesm and sometimes youth is a benefit in the face of adversity.
“I think a lot of us, we’re young and we don’t know any better. We just go out there and have fun and play our game,” Condra said. “We’re used to playing with each other and used to winning and we don’t like to lose.”
Thursday night, Washington faces a Senators squad with Anderson and Michalek back in the fold. Spezza and Karlsson remain sidelined indefinitely, but the defenseman is holding out hope he might be able to play in the playoffs.
Regardless who is in Ottawa’s lineup, though, the Capitals know that this should be another solid challenge of their recent success.
“Through their injuries they haven’t lost a step,” Coach Adam Oates said. “To me that means that they’re well coached; they understand the plan here. They have guys that didn’t let the team fold, they’ve got good goaltending, goals-against is low and they do a lot of things well. You can’t take them lightly.”