OTTAWA â€” The Ottawa Senators didn't want to call it a must-win, but they know they can't afford long losing streaks as the race for the NHL playoffs starts to tighten.
The Senators put an end to a four-game skid Sunday night with a 5-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers heading into a week that will see them host the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs.
While it's still early in the season, players admit scoreboard watching has begun and the Senators realize any prolonged lapses will hurt their playoff hopes with the standings being close.
With a 21-14-4 record and 46 points the Senators hold a playoff spot as of Monday, but Toronto is just two points back.
"It's still really early, but we're focusing on our team, we're not focusing on the other team, but at the same time we're aware of everything that's going on around the league,â€ said forward Derick Brassard. "We want to try and gain points every night and we're just focusing on the way we play."
Sunday night's effort was a solid group win and while it wasn't always pretty the Senators played well enough to earn the victory.
Senators head coach Guy Boucher has tinkered with lines for much of the season and Sunday the trio of Brassard, Zack Smith and Mark Stone was one of its best as they scored twice and created numerous chances.
Just as impressive was the work done by Mike Hoffman, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Tom Pyatt. While Pyatt and Pageau are counted on regularly for their defensive play, seeing Hoffman in such a role is still surprising.
Last season Hoffman was often criticized for his lack of defensive responsibility and rarely saw ice time late in a tight game. On Sunday Hoffman was on the ice with less than two minutes remaining in a one-goal contest.
"It obviously does give yourself confidence knowing that the coach believes and trusts in you," said Hoffman. "It's great for our team. Thatâ€™s how we get better and how we grow."
Boucher has been impressed with Hoffman's commitment to his defensive side of the game of late.
"It's not just the last games, it's been like that the last 15 games. He's been on a real upscale in that respect.
"I loved that line for the greatest part of that game. On one back check (Hoffman) caught up to (Connor) McDavid. Thatâ€™s pretty impressive. We're talking about maybe the fastest player in the league and Hoffman catches up to him."
Last season Hoffman set career highs with 29 goals and 59 points and established himself as a solid offensive player and was rewarded with a four-year contract extension. Boucher says Hoffman has taken on whatever role has been asked of him this season and isn't concerned about the label of being considered part of the "top six."
While time off during the season is often at a premium, the Senators had a league-mandated five days off last week before playing two games and now have three days off to prepare for the Penguins. The Senators had an off-ice workout Monday, but Boucher said he plans on taking advantage of the next two days to work on some specific aspects of their game.
Boucher was asked yet again to address the fact forward Bobby Ryan was a scratch Saturday night against Washington, as no clear reason has been given.
After Sunday's game Ryan said, "the coach said it's going to be dealt with in house, and we're going to keep it in house, that's it. I know it doesn't help your jobs in the speculation columns and the things you've got to do, but some things deserve to stay in house and this is one of them."
Boucher didn't add much more on Monday, but was asked if he had listened to Ryan's post-game comments.
"I didn't even listen to it. I'm sure he handled it well," he said. "We keep things internally for personal reasons. When there have been clear and specific reasons I have been very open since the start of the season. When it's personal I am respectful in terms of that."
Lisa Wallace, The Canadian Press