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Maturity key as surging Ottawa Senators make playoff push: coach

VANCOUVER — With his Ottawa Senators on a run, Drake Batherson isn't making any spring travel plans this year.
Ottawa Senators’ Drake Batherson (19) celebrates his goal against the Winnipeg Jets with Claude Giroux (28) during first period NHL action in Winnipeg on Tuesday December 20, 2022. With his Ottawa Senators on a run, Drake Batherson isn't making any spring travel plans this year.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade

VANCOUVER — With his Ottawa Senators on a run, Drake Batherson isn't making any spring travel plans this year. 

The Sens (33-27-4) currently sit four points out of the second Eastern Conference wild card spot and, with 18 regular-season games left on the schedule, the team believes a post-season berth is within its grasp.

It's a much different feeling than previous seasons, Batherson said Friday.

"This time in past years, you’re kind of booking your vacations and stuff like that," said the 24-year-old right-winger. "I’m not ready for golf season yet. I want to make a push for the playoffs and see what we can do.” 

The Sens have steadily climbed the standings since the all-star break, and are 7-3-0 in their last 10 outings. After falling behind 3-0 in Seattle on Thursday, Ottawa clawed its way back to earn a 5-4 overtime victory over the Kraken. 

The win shows how the team has matured this season, said forward Claude Giroux. 

“At the start of the year, we weren't winning those games. But (now) I think we're finding ways to," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's ugly or it's nice, we’ve just got to find a way to get the points.”

The group's evolution has been a work in progress for several years as the young core grew up, said head coach D.J. Smith. 

Captain Brady Tkachuk was "just a young guy finding his way" when Smith came to Ottawa four years ago and now his maturity now reflects the entire team. 

“The way those young guys have kind of grown around each other, they’ve kind of pushed each other to be better," Smith said.

"They’ve taken a lot of losses, a lot of bad losses to real good teams. And they want to be a team that's known as one of those (good teams). And we're not there yet, but we're certainly trying to.”

The journey hasn't been easy this season. 

Ottawa's roster has been "crippled" by injuries, the coach said, noting that the Sens are likely the only team in the league to see both their starting goaltender and regular backup sidelined simultaneously.

The Sens announced Monday that goaltender Cam Talbot will miss three weeks after suffering a lower-body injury in a 5-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets last Saturday. Goalie Anton Forsberg was already on the injured-reserve list after tearing the MCL in both knees last month. Centre Josh Norris is also out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery at the end of January. 

Coaching staff have looked to simplify the team's game in response to adversity, Smith said, and the focus has been on winning more than 50 per cent of their games each month. 

“I always go back to the leadership group and the older guys on this team that do it right in practice hold each other accountable," he said. "And when we have a bad game, they're able to turn the page way quicker than we used to.”

Giroux is one veteran who's stepped up in recent weeks, putting up 15 points in his last 10 games. 

“I'm a strong believer that when the team is doing well, your job is a lot easier," said the 35-year-old, who signed with Ottawa as a free agent last summer. 

"I'm playing with great players and when the team is rolling, you just try to find ways to to contribute, could be offensively or defensively. And right now the puck’s going in.”

Now in his 16th NHL season, Giroux knows what it takes to transform a late-season push into a playoff spot, having made 95 post-season appearances and registered 81 playoff points in his career. 

It's experience the Sens will value as they look to move beyond the regular season for the first time in six years. 

"We’re outside looking in right now. Obviously you want to make the playoffs, but we can’t get ourselves caught up in watching the standings every night — even if I do watch it every night," Giroux said. 

"But you’ve just got to worry about your game. You’ve just got to worry about playing well and if you do that, you’re going to get your points and you’re going to climb up the standings.”

The Senators next chance to collect points will come Saturday when they face the Canucks (27-32-5) in Vancouver. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2023. 

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press