TORONTO - It's a whole different world for the Ottawa Senators since they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a shootout Feb. 12.
The Senators have picked up 41 of a possible 52 points since then to make an improbable charge into the playoff race, while the Penguins have gone 10-11-3 to fall into an Eastern Conference wild-card spot.
"I think we have progressed a lot as a team," Senators captain Erik Karlsson said. "We've played the kind of hockey we need to win more games."
Even with all that progression, the Senators' shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night left them on the outside looking in. They're two points back of the Penguins, Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings going into another must-win game — Tuesday against Pittsburgh at Canadian Tire Centre.
"We're playing pretty good right now," coach Dave Cameron said. "Pittsburgh, their lineup speaks for itself. It's going to be a dandy."
Ottawa is in a precarious position with three games left, but it's a situation players have grown awfully comfortable in.
"This isn't something that we're not used to," defenceman Marc Methot said. "We've been playing, I don't want to say playoff hockey, but extreme pressure games now for the last couple weeks at least. We know how to manage it."
The Senators have managed the brink well, going 19-4-3 since their last meeting with the Penguins to make the post-season even a possibility. Goaltender Andrew Hammond is 17-1-2 with a 1.86 goals-against average and .939 save percentage since making his NHL debut Feb. 16, and Karlsson has eight goals and 19 assists in the past 26 games.
"Obviously it was a big hill to get to this point," said Hammond, who was named the NHL's first star of the week for the third time this season. "I don't think we can change anything that got us here. So it's just kind of status quo, keep going and keep fighting.
"Three games left, realistically one week left in the season, and it's up to us to kind of get ourselves into the playoffs."
Realistically, the Senators also need help. Even if they win their final three games (versus Pittsburgh Tuesday, at the New York Rangers Thursday and at the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday) in regulation, they'd need the Penguins, Bruins or Red Wings to trip up in the home stretch to get in.
"We need to worry about ourselves, we can't be scoreboard-watchers," rookie 20-goal scorer Mark Stone said. "We just need to bear down, win our game on Tuesday and go forward from there."
Karlsson said the Senators have been facing each game for the past several weeks as the most important of their season, and their upcoming showdown with the Penguins is no different.
"Same mentality," Ottawa's Norris Trophy candidate said. "They're still a good team and they're on the brink, as well, and they're going to bring out their best. They're a well-established team and we've got to play our best to have a chance to win."
If the Senators lose to the Penguins in regulation, Pittsburgh clinches a playoff spot and Ottawa moves to the brink. Elimination could come as soon as Wednesday, depending on how the Red Wings and Bruins do.
Until it's over, though, the Senators are confident about their chances heading into Tuesday.
"We know that Pittsburgh's going to be pretty hungry," Methot said. "We get up for those big games, especially when they're real important. It seems to bring out the best in us."
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