Teammates greet Ottawa Senators' Jason Spezza after his empty-net goal during the third period of Game 5 of an NHL Stanley Cup first-round hockey playoff series against the New York Rangers, 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 - The Ottawa Senators are happy to accept the added support that is bound to come their way as the last Canadian team remaining in the NHL playoffs.
"Lots of room (on the bandwagon), we've got a big one," forward Jason Spezza said Monday before facing the Rangers in Game 6.
The Senators haven't found themselves in this position since 2007, when they advanced to the Stanley Cup final and were beaten by Anaheim in five games. Few would ever have guessed they'd occupy the spot this season.
But a surprisingly good run coupled with Vancouver's shocking first-round exit on Sunday night left the spotlight shining solely on the Sens. The other five Canadian NHL teams missed the playoffs altogether.
The most encouraging sign for Ottawa is the number of teams in general around the league that have been eliminated—19 and counting, entering play Monday—inching them closer to their ultimate goal.
"When you set your goals you don't say 'We want to be the last Canadian team around,'" said Spezza. "You just want to be the last team standing period. That's all we want to do, is focus on winning our series and keep moving on."
The Senators entered Monday night's game with a chance to complete an upset of the Rangers, the top team in the Eastern Conference. In the West, the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings pulled off the same feat against Vancouver.
Ottawa has received strong goaltending in the post-season from Craig Anderson—"I think he gives his teammates confidence to play and gives them the ability to go on the ice and just be able to play," said coach Paul MacLean—and important contributions from unexpected sources, including 19-year-old forward Mark Stone, who had an assist in his first NHL game on Saturday after joining the team from the Western Hockey League.
It will likely be tough for some fans across the country to embrace the Sens, particularly those that normally cheer for the rival Montreal Canadiens or Toronto Maple Leafs.
But forward Kyle Turris, who grew up in New Westminster, B.C., and joined Ottawa in a December trade from Phoenix, thinks people paying close attention to the team for the first time will find a lot to like.
"We've never given up and we've really come together as a team chemistry-wise," said Turris. "I think it shows on the ice."
Those looking for other options might consider turning to Florida, which has used 15 Canadian players in these playoffs, the most of any team still alive. Boston has employed 14 while St. Louis used 13. Eleven have played for Ottawa.
Either way, the Sens are now tasked with trying to end the country's exceedingly long Stanley Cup drought. The Montreal Canadiens were the last team Canadian team to lift the trophy in 1993—when they were still playing at the Forum.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year in the nation's capital, but something special has taken hold along the way. Veteran Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson never thought his team would be the last Canadian NHL squad playing meaningful hockey because he wasn't even sure if they'd qualify for the post-season.
"It's not something you think about or want to do," said Alfredsson. "We just want to focus on what we're going to do. We wanted to put ourselves in a position to be in the playoffs, first and foremost, and then compete hard in the playoffs.
"We're doing that and we want to keep going."
But there's no denying the achievement.
"It's obviously something to be proud of," said Spezza. "We're still playing."