The Ottawa Senators have had their opportunities.
However, instead of creeping closer to a playoff spot in the past week, the Senators have dropped further behind in the Eastern Conference wild-card standings heading into their Saturday night matchup against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Senators (33-31-4, 70 points) have lost four in a row to put the brakes on their pursuit of the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders for the East’s two wild-card spots.
Ottawa is eight points back of those two teams, with 14 games left for the Penguins and Senators and 12 for the Islanders.
Making the playoff run even more uphill for the Senators, the Florida Panthers, Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres leapfrogged them in the wild-card standings during Ottawa’s losing streak.
Senators captain Brady Tkachuk has 69 points (28 goals, 41 assists) in 68 games this season, surpassing his career high of 67 points set last season in 79 games. However, he is in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for a fifth straight season.
“It’s frustrating because you want to get rewarded for all the hard work,” Tkachuk said after Ottawa nearly erased a three-goal deficit at the start of the third period against the visiting Colorado Avalanche on Thursday but ultimately lost 5-4.
Making the four-game skid even more ill-timed is that it prevented the Senators from capitalizing on recent slides by the Penguins and Islanders.
Pittsburgh has dropped its past two games, falling Tuesday to the Montreal Canadiens, the last-place team in the Atlantic Division, and Thursday to the New York Rangers, but still expanded its lead over the Senators by four points in the past week.
The Islanders lost back-to-back games on Saturday against the Capitals and on Tuesday versus the Los Angeles Kings, but they bounced back to beat the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday, expanding their lead over Ottawa.
“The season is on the line,” Senators forward Claude Giroux said. “It’s frustrating when you play hard and the result is not there.”
The Maple Leafs (41-18-9, 91 points) are coming off 5-2 win against the visiting Carolina Hurricanes on Friday night. The result extended their lead to three points over the Tampa Bay Lightning for second place in the Atlantic Division.
Toronto forward Zach Aston-Reese opened the scoring within the first three minutes on Friday and added a second-period goal.
“It definitely felt good,” Aston-Reese said of the early tally. “It’s always easy to play the rest of the game when you score on your first shift. They were pretty easy goals for me to put in. (Erik) Gustafsson with a great shot (to deflect), a great move by him too with that little shimmy at the top to get free, and then (Sam) Lafferty with a great saucer pass.
“I was hoping for the third, but I’m happy with the night.”
Toronto defenseman Morgan Rielly had a goal and an assist against the Hurricanes, giving him goals in back-to-back games after totaling two goals in the first 51 games this season.
The Maple Leafs, who have used seven defensemen in the lineup the past four games, will start Matt Murray in goal on Saturday after Ilya Samsonov made 32 saves against the Hurricanes.
Murray, who played for Ottawa the past two seasons before coming to Toronto in a trade last summer, has allowed four goals in each of his three starts since returning from a five-week absence caused by an ankle injury.
He was set to start against the Senators on Jan. 27 when he was injured during warmups and replaced by Samsonov, who gave up six goals on 34 shots in Ottawa’s 6-2 loss.
Murray is 5-1-1 in his career against Ottawa with a .906 save percentage and a 2.73 goals-against average.