New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, of Sweden, reacts during the third period of Game 5 of an NHL Stanley Cup first-round hockey playoff series against the Ottawa Senators, Saturday, April 21, 2012, at New York's Madison Square Garden. The Senators won 2-0 to lead the series 3-2. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
OTTAWA - Seize the day.
The Latin equivalent of that phrase—"Carpe Diem"—adorns a prominent plaque in the tunnel leading to the ice at Scotiabank Place and provides a pretty good reminder of the attitude the Ottawa Senators should currently be embracing.
With a chance to knock off the favoured New York Rangers on Monday night, opportunity is knocking for the eighth-seeded Sens. Not only will they enjoy the support of their passionate home fans in Game 6, they should also have captain Daniel Alfredsson back in the lineup.
This is the kind of moment they've been building toward all season. They best not let it pass.
"We know we're going to get their best game," Senators forward Jason Spezza said Sunday. "They're the best team in the East and the hardest game to win is to send a team home. We have to make sure that our focus is there.
"We're excited to be at home and have this opportunity and play in front of our crowd, but we can't get wrapped up in too much."
Spezza planned to head straight home from the rink and close the shutters. It was a good idea even on a sleepy Sunday in the nation's capital, where every other car seemed to be adorned with a Senators flag and a number of local businesses put out signs in support of the team.
The celebration went long into the night on Elgin St.—affectionately dubbed "Sens Mile" during the playoffs—following Saturday's 2-0 victory, but the players know they haven't won anything just yet.
However, with a 3-2 lead in games Ottawa has a chance to win its first playoff series since the 2007 Eastern Conference final. Virtually no one predicted the Senators would be good enough to qualify for the post-season in October and now they're on the verge of eliminating one of the NHL's top teams in April.
"I think we're a confident bunch," said forward Nick Foligno. "I don't know if we were expecting to beat them, but we felt that we had a good chance if we played the right way. We just wanted to make sure we came out and gave it our best and we've done that to this point."
The series has been extremely tight, with three games decided by one goal, including two in overtime.
That helps explain the relaxed atmosphere on display as both teams held optional skates in their respective cities on Sunday. The Senators weren't getting overly excited and the Rangers didn't see any reason to panic.
"Whoever is going to win has to win four," said Rangers centre Brad Richards. "And no one has done that yet."
Alfredsson appeared ready to draw back in for the Senators after missing the last three games with a concussion. The injury was suffered at the elbow of New York's Carl Hagelin, who will also return for Game 6 after serving a three-game suspension.
The layoff was particularly difficult for Alfredsson, the 39-year-old Senators captain who mused on the eve of the playoffs that this could be his last foray into the post-season.
He was forced to watch Games 3, 4 and 5 from his couch and managed to keep his emotions in check as all three went down to the wire. His wife, Bibi, was animated enough for both of them.
"I'm pretty calm; can't say the same about the wife," said Alfredsson. "She's hard on the refs, very biased as well."
The difference in the series has been Senators goalie Craig Anderson, whom coach Paul MacLean called his team's best player to this point. He stopped all 41 shots to help Ottawa steal another victory at Madison Square Garden in Game 5, narrowly outperforming the Rangers splendid goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, in the process.
There is almost no room for error in games that have been exceptionally low scoring and tight.
"It's been a grinding series," said Foligno. "I mean there's no ice given out there, you have to battle for everything."
A touch of controversy arrived Saturday when Ottawa agitator Chris Neil laid out six-foot-seven Rangers forward Brian Boyle with a high, hard hit in the third period. The NHL decided against handing out any supplemental discipline in that case.
Boyle, who scored goals in the first three games of the season, suffered a concussion on the play and wasn't expected to be available for Game 6.
Rangers coach John Tortorella was furious with the hit. He likened it to the play that saw Phoenix Coyotes forward Raffi Torres suspended 25 games on Saturday after hammering Chicago's Marian Hossa.
"He's concussed and out," Tortorella said about Boyle. "Exact same hit as Torres. He launches himself, head shot. The puck is at the goal-line when he's hit. The blueprint is there.
"It's just a dangerous, dangerous, cheap hit."
None of the Senators was interested in offering a rebuttal to those comments.
With the end of the series tantalizingly close, there was no reason to give the opposition any bulletin board material. Ottawa knows how important it is to win Game 6—the team doesn't want any part of a Game 7 back in New York—and MacLean planned to speak with his players about the importance of raising their play to a new level.
"It's going to be physical and we know it's going to be hard," he said of Monday's game. "We have to make sure that we just get a little bit better again tomorrow. Make sure we're ready to go."
An amazing opportunity is there to be seized.
With files from The Associated Press.
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