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In this June 13, 2002, file photo, Detroit Red Wings' Brendan Shanahan holds the Stanley Cup after beating the Carolina Hurricanes 3-1 to clinch the championship in Game 5 of the NHL Stanley Cup hockey series in Detroit. Shanahan, a member of three Stanley Cup championship teams with the Red Wings announced on Tuesday, Nov. 17,2 009, that he is retiring from the NHL, after 21 seasons and an almost certain Hall of Fame career. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz, File)


Lies, damn lies - and statistics.

Do not believe what you read in the NHL standings.

Otherwise, how can it be that the most feared team on the eve of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Detroit Red Wings, sits in the lower half of those teams in the Western Conference that will be moving on?

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And how can it be that the Northeast Division winner in the Eastern Conference, the Buffalo Sabres, would tremble in their skates if they have to meet the Ottawa Senators, a team that barely challenged for that same division title?

Tonight in Ottawa, the Senators and Sabres will meet for the final time this regular season. Ottawa has not only won all five previous matches, but a victory would make it 10 straight and would give Ottawa a remarkable 25-6-4 record over Buffalo since the 2004-05 lockout ended.

By this point, the Sabres' desire for revenge must be somewhat akin to what Captain Ahab felt for that white whale that he couldn't get out of his head and eventually drove him mad.

"The only way to get rid of it," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said prior to their last meeting, in March, "is go out and win a game."

They could not, falling at home 4-2.

"We don't feel that because it's Buffalo we know we're going to win," Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson said at the time.

But, he added, "They bring the best out of us."

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Hockey history is riddled with such curiosities, teams that, for reasons often unknown, just seem to have another team's number. Ottawa has a similar history of futility against the Toronto Maple Leafs, especially in the playoffs. The Senators historically had so much trouble beating a single player, Gary Roberts, no matter which team he played for, that there were times when Ottawa fans would have traded Alfredsson and Governor-General Michaëlle Jean straight up for the feisty former Leaf and Penguin Senators killer.

"Roberts used to beat the crap out of us all by himself," Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray says.

While the standings do determine who plays whom and which team enjoys home-ice advantage, that's really about all that can by read into them. Certain teams simply match up better (or worse) against certain other teams, and all teams have an opponent, no matter where in the standings, they'd just as soon avoid.

San Jose Sharks defenceman Dan Boyle, who grew up in Ottawa, says that when he was with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and they had their successful, somewhat surprising, run for the Cup, they lucked out at each turn. They got through the East against teams they always fared well against - avoiding Ottawa, the one team that owned them on the ice - and then played a final against Calgary, a sixth-place seed that had already done the hard slogging by knocking off favourites.

"We got the match-ups that worked in our favour," Boyle says. "Everything kind of lined up for us. Had we played the Senators, for example, who kicked our asses for the six years I was there, who knows?"

Winnipeg sports psychologist Cal Botterill - who most recently worked with bobsleigh, skeleton and cross-country athletes at the Vancouver Winter Games - spent 11 years working for various NHL teams, including the 1993-94 New York Rangers, who broke a 54-year drought to win the Stanley Cup.

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Botterill believes that a team, just like an individual, can develop a psychological block that becomes reality. "Just like a powerful belief can mobilize us and give us confidence," he says, "so a mental doubt can become a block."

The key, says Botterill - whose daughter Jennifer is on the gold-medal-winning Canadian women's hockey team and son Jason played in the NHL - is to "recognize what it is and get on a mission to beat it."

That sounds easier than it is. When matters go badly in hockey, they often seem to go worse. "If it were raining soup," former Leafs coach Tom Watt once said of his team's lack of success, "we'd all have forks."

"Most of my time in the NHL," Botterill says, "was spent slump busting. How do you get these kinds of doubts out of the way."

But if you can pull it off, he says, it can actually turn into a surprising positive. "You need that sense of mission," he says. "It's the thing that will crack it and ultimately break it."

And if it breaks at the right time, "it can springboard you into a great playoff run."

"There's no question it becomes psychological, but it begins physical," says Ottawa's Murray, who previously managed and coached in several NHL cities, including Detroit and Washington. "I've had a lot of sports psychologists work with my teams, but basically it all comes down to this: make sure you have enough gritty, tough players to offset the other team and allow your good players to play their game.

"It's about courage. Talent is the most important thing, but you have to have toughness to show up and allow your talent to play."

For whatever reason, Murray says, Ottawa's skill players feel more confident on the ice against Buffalo than the Sabres' skill players are able to show against Ottawa.

"They don't seem to feel as comfortable with their game," he says.

"If we keep thinking big, bad Ottawa is going to come and beat us," Buffalo defenceman Steve Montador said the last time the two teams met, "that's our fault."

No matter what happens tonight in Ottawa, however, the Sabres can lace up knowing they will not be meeting Ottawa in the opening round of the playoffs.

Ottawa, by virtue of being locked into fifth place in the Eastern standings, will face either the New Jersey Devils or the Stanley-Cup-defending Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins swept Ottawa four straight the last time Ottawa reached the postseason, and have surely been in the Senators' heads ever since.

Not that anyone, of course, will admit to it.

"I'm not going to sit here and say I want to play somebody," San Jose's Boyle says. "I've been around long enough to know that's the last thing you want to do.

"But certainly there are certain match-ups that are better than others."

With a report from Eric Duhatschek

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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