Had you told me a couple of days earlier that I would even have had the opportunity to watch the Senators play a sixth game, you would have had an easier time persuading me to believe that Brian Lee could still develop into a significant cog for this team in the future.
Like many of you, I was lead to believe that barring a miracle, Eugene Melnyk's dreams of going on a long and prosperous postseason had perilously drawn to a close after the Senators failed to split games three and four on home ice. So when the team slowly climbed itself out of that three games to one hole and Pascal Dupuis scored that overtime goal to clinch the series, I sat there in disbelief as the Senators assembled at center ice to shake hands.
It had all happened so abruptly: a soft dump in; Erik Karlsson getting bumped off the puck; a quick pass by Staal out front to Dupuis; and a one time shot that sent men racing for the exits like Stuntman Stu had just announced that a Lilith Fair concert would follow the conclusion of the game. Faster than you could say denouement, the season was over. Penguins fans barely had time to celebrate. Those frontrunning frat boys were too busy trying to roofy the drinks of the women beside them.
It was only after the last handshake was made that I could rise out of my seat to applaud the team's effort level. When the last Senator had left the ice, I slumped back into my seat to collect my thoughts and buy some time while the other 20,000+ fans filtered out of the parking lot.
So here's the good news: for everyone's sake, a resilient and undermanned Senators team managed to provide us with a glimmer of hope and two unbelievably entertaining elimination games. Even if the team did demonstrate a lack of killer instinct to put away a Penguins team that was down by 3 goals late in the second period of game six. Dr. Chow can put the defibrillators away now that Pascal Leclaire has put together two consecutive quality starts and shown that his career still has a pulse. Two of Ottawa's best players were their rookies -- Erik Karlsson and Peter Regin -- and any playoff experience for these two freshmen is beneficial for the future. Building upon career seasons, the trio of Jarkko Ruutu, Chris Kelly, and Chris Neil was the team's most consistent line at even strength. Daniel Alfredsson, we'd learn, was playing with a torn stomach muscle and still somehow manage to tie for the team lead in playoff points (8).
And now the bad...
The team exhibited an underwhelming lack of speed and were outplayed in every facet of the series. The deficiencies of using an imbalanced blueline -- the lack of offence and mobility -- became abundantly clear. Even though Bryan Murray took a calculated risk assembling a big and physical blueline, it came at the expense of a quick transition game. If the forwards couldn't receive a clean first pass with speed in the neutral zone, it made the whole team look slower.
After a successful second half that showed that he didn't need rely on backdoor passes to Dany Heatley, the handsomely paid Jason Spezza didn't step up on the League's biggest stage and carry his team. With a NTC set to kick in on July 1st, the annual exhibition of Spezza trade rumours are destined to ramp up and even Spezza himself is admitting that he's growing tired of being a lightning rod for criticism. In the absence of some secondary scorers, Mike Fisher uncharacteristically avoided the scoresheet and bodily contact. At 37 years of age, it's difficult not to ignore Alfredsson's recent injuries -- knee, shoulder, stomach -- and that his goal totals have regressed for a second consecutive season. By bringing in two deadline acquisitions in Matt Cullen and Andy Sutton, Bryan Murray gave up two second draft picks and Alex 'freaking' Picard for two veterans who probably won't be retained when unrestricted free agency starts. Speaking of unrestricted free agency, Ottawa's shot blocking machine, Anton Volchenkov, may join Sutton and Cullen on the open market.
With the season now over, many fans and the other Senators website brethren are regarding this season as a success on the loose basis that nothing was expected from this team this season.
I'll agree that yes, in light of last summer's crisis, the season could be considered a success on the merit that this team came together and developed a blue collar workman-like ability to persevere. I just however, find it remarkable that so many people are putting that much stock into the pre-season prognostications of so-called "experts" who predicted that Ottawa wouldn't be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference when the dust had settled.
I know things were supposed to be different this year. When the Ottawa Senators had their eleven consecutive playoff appearances streak snapped last season, Ottawa's fifth place finish in the Eastern Conference was supposed to inject renewed optimism and vigour back into the fan base. Gone were the lofty expectations. In their stead, fans and the core of this team were supposed to embrace an underdog identity. Only it never truly developed until Matt Carkner scored in the triple-overtime of game five.
From the box office to the various opinions that have circulated for the past two weeks, the vibe in this city has been: Well, if they could only get past the Pittsburgh Penguins, maybe that's when I'll jump on the bandwagon. Maybe it has something to do with the years of languishing in the playoffs. It's like one big sect of the Senators populace has become like the dogs used in Martin Seligman's learned behavioural psych experiments. Caught in a perpetual state of learned helplessness.
Or maybe some fans are like me and aren't satisfied with an appearance and first round ouster. Before the season, I predicted that this team would finish as a 6th to 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, so maybe I'm not as surprised as others by Ottawa's playoff appearance. If the circumstances were different or if this was a young team like a Colorado or the Islanders, I might get more excited about a first round appearance. But given the veteran-laden roster that Ottawa had, if the team had missed the playoffs, I would have viewed the season as a colossal failure.
If I could draw an analogy for this season, I'd compare it to the movie Executive Decision starring Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal. Some people saw this as a good '90's action flick. Whereas I dwell and make a comment like, "Good movie? Sure. But I'm not happy because I paid to watch an action flick with Steven Seagal and he's dead within the first 10 minutes."
The point that I can't stress enough is that the ramifications of this offseason are huge. Will Volchenkov walk? If so, who replaces his spot? Will management waver and ship Jason Spezza out of town? Can Bryan Murray bring in a legitimate second line center to insulate Spezza? Can the goaltending combination of Leclaire and Elliott be better than they were this season? With a longer summer, how much size and strength can Erik Karlsson add? Is Nick Foligno a second liner or a third liner? Can either of Patrick Wiercioch or Jared Cowen make this team next fall? Would Bryan Murray consider moving a Chris Kelly or a Jarkko Ruutu to free up some salary?
They're all legitimate questions that I can't wait to see pan out. When does the Cup final end again?