Got your playoff tix yet?
With the regular season in the record books, the Ottawa Senators are on their way to the great NHL dance toward the Stanley Cup, and you know how they hate to dance alone.
Please don’t say there’s nothing left in the household budget, you’ve had two years to save up for this moment since Ottawa’s last playoff appearance in April 2010, against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Just didn’t think they’d qualify?
Well, you’re not alone there.
Few in and around the NHL expected the Senators could rebound so quickly after the hockey club informed the fan base last February that it was dealing away veterans, paring payroll, and setting a future course with a few core players to lead the youth brigade.
To the pleasant surprise of all involved, the Senators aren’t done yet, after 82 games.
It wasn’t always pretty.
There were nights when the Ottawa Senators looked every bit as advertised, making rookie mistakes and giving up soft goals. New head coach Paul MacLean, given to folksy expressions from his east coast roots, called them the “touchdown” games, when his team was surrendering as many as seven goals against.
Soon, though, the group came together, the stars aligned just so and the Senators seemed at times to be playing amid sprinkles of magic dust in the air.
How else to explain this season in which captain Daniel Alfredsson returned from back surgery that not only halted the nerve pain, but somehow make him five years younger. Alfredsson was a star performer in the 2012 NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa, which evolved into an Alfie Love-In for fans and fellow players.
Time stood still as the great Swedish forwards, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, tapped their sticks on the ice in a salute to their countryman Alfredsson, while the fans in the stands battled goosebumps. One doesn’t script these moments, they just happen, in sport, once in a great while.
The same All-Star Game showcased the spectacular seasons of fellow Senators Erik Karlsson, one of the favourites to win the Norris Trophy as to NHL defenceman; centre Jason Spezza, the heir-apparent to Alfredsson, and winger Milan Michalek, the winger who outscored his trade opposite, Dany Heatley, this season.
Along with the steady goaltending of Craig Anderson, the play of the big four was the greatest factor in Ottawa’s surprise run to the playoffs.
Considering the NHL’s “second season” is only beginning (the full playoff schedule will be announced this afternoon), it’s been quite a ride already.
The players talk about “buying in” to coach MacLean’s philosophy of uptempo hockey and puck pursuit, but fans in the National Capital Region (and beyond those borders) deserve credit for their change in attitude about the team.
Weary of watching highly paid former NHL greats go through the motions — free agent winger Alex Kovalev was a trigger in this regard — fans pleaded with general manager Bryan Murray to launch a rebuild, even before he set down that path.
The most bullish of them probably didn’t believe Murray when he said this team could be competitive within a year, but the team worked relentlessly to get to this point, and fans seemed to take a particular delight in watching future prospects, such as Mika Zibanejad, who dazzled at times during training camp before retreating to Sweden for further development.
Just a few years ago, the Senators were expected to contend every year, with fans growing cynical when the big expectations evaporated in playoff defeats.
The 2007 trip to the Stanley Cup final was tantalizing, but later frustrated fans of the team who figured on getting back there sometime soon.
Instead what followed was a first round defeat, by sweep, in 2008, a failure to qualify in 2009, first round exit in 2010 and another miss last season. Considering the club reached the postseason consecutively from 1997-2008, the playoff misses were shocking, but steeled fan resolve to start anew, with better draft picks.
How will the Senators fare against the New York Rangers?
Does it matter? Just reaching the playoffs this early in the rebuild is a bonus. Bigger seasons lie ahead, with the likes of Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg on the horizon.
It will be interesting to gauge reaction in the community, should the season end suddenly. Have expectations crept upward during this surprise campaign?
Players will do what they can to prevent a sudden eclipse of the spring. Fear of being embarrassed has been an effective tool for the 2011-12 Senators. Let’s see what this plucky group can do on a bigger stage, with most of the country looking on, perhaps catching their first real glimpse of Canada’s Team East.
It’s April and the Senators are the biggest story in town, like old times.
Got your playoff tix yet?