By Bruce Arthur
NEW YORK — When the Ottawa Senators stepped onto the ice at Madison Square Garden on Thursday morning it had just been flooded, and the remaining blobs of water were bright liquid mirrors for the spotlights above.
The arena was quiet and calm, and their skates rasped and their sticks clapped and their voices rose up into the bowl and were lost. Just another day, really. Except not one of the players knew whether this was the last time.
Not the last time forever, of course; they would certainly play hockey again. Or at least, almost all of them would.
But this was the morning of Game 7 with the New York Rangers, the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and such things are coin flips. You win, or you lose. And if you lose, you go from skating full out to a dead stop, just like that.
And after the rest of his team had tromped back to the visitors’ dressing room and slipped off their pads and headed for the bus, there was captain Daniel Alfredsson in a blue pinstripe suit and open-necked shirt. He was the most serene Senator of all.
Three days previous, he had all but lost his mind after being benched on a power play, and then hit by John Mitchell in his first game back after missing three with a concussion. Alfredsson smashed his stick on the top of the boards, severed the blade from the shaft behind the bench and delivered a series of skate guillotines to a poor doomed water bottle. Even he admitted it was strange.
But that was over and here he was, age 39 and grizzled and somewhere in his sunset. Alfredsson was asked, since some have wondered if this could be his last game, if he had enjoyed a chance to reflect on all the miles behind him, and what they meant.
“No, I haven’t,” Alfredsson said. “I did a little bit the other day; I read some comments about (fellow Swede Nicklas) Lidstrom. But at the same time I try to just stay here and now, and take it day by day, and enjoy it, and make the most of it, and we’ll see after the game. Especially in the playoffs, it takes a lot of energy to get ready, and you can get distracted. Just focus on today.”
As he talked, it became clear that his Senators had followed the same blueprint to get to this point, to become the last Canadian team standing in a season where the prognosticators had left them for hockey dead. It’s what coach Paul MacLean told them in training camp: One day at a time, over and over, get better. “Inch by inch,” as winger Chris Neil puts it. They say they believed they could reach this point, the precipice of a playoff series victory, difficult as that is to imagine.
“I think that’s why we’re here,” said centre Jason Spezza, who seems the natural heir for Alfredsson’s captaincy, if it became available. “I think if you don’t believe you can get to this point, and you don’t believe you can, you’re not going to win . . . I think we felt that we underachieved last year, and things weren’t as bad as they seemed, and I think that we felt like we had a lot of character in our room, and guys would bounce back and have a real good year. We didn’t expect not to be picked at the bottom of the league because of the year we had, but we expected more of ourselves.”
Of course, when Norris-nominated defenceman Erik Karlsson was asked if he expected this after last year, he said, “Probably not. I mean, going into this season we didn’t really have any hopes of going this far, I think. Obviously we believed in it, and we wanted to do it, and you know, we took it day by day.”
Alfredsson had lost all four Game 7s in his career, and they hurt. But this one, he said in the quiet dressing room, felt different.
“I think you have a different perspective maybe than when you were younger,” said Alfredsson, who has four sons. “When you were younger, especially pre-family, I mean, Game 7 was the biggest thing in life. And it’s not anymore. I guess that’s how I explain it.
“I mean, we do this for a living. When you’re at the rink, you give everything you have. But I think I don’t get as caught up with everything that’s around it. What’s written, or if somebody praises you, or critiques you, I handle that more maturely. It’s not that I don’t care, but it doesn’t affect me like when I was younger.”
Part of his serenity is this team, which came together in an almost magical way after a miserable 74-point season in 2010-11; that part makes his face, covered by patches of blond beard, light up.
“Yeah, I’m extremely proud of this group, in the sense that since we went to the final (in 2007) it’s been a tough few years,” he said. “And to be able to do this this year, in a rebuild — we got rid of a lot of players that had been here for a long time and to be able to do this, like I said it’s been one of the best years of my career, in terms of exceeding expectations.”
He talks about leading a hip-hip-hooray cheer after games to single out those who shone, something he brought from the Swedish national team. He points to all the players, young and old, who elevated their play this season. And even as he hoped to win, Alfredsson took the long view, even now; a career like his, full of near misses and disappointment, could make any man philosophical. A loss could build character, too.
“Yeah, I think people grow most through tough times,” Alfredsson said. “If it’s your job or your family or friends, or your tragedies, that’s what makes you grow. Doing well, if you only do well all the time, you don’t really enjoy it as much either, if you haven’t had tough times before. Yeah.”
And Alfredsson spoke a few words in Swedish to a visiting countryman, and he wandered off towards the bus to get ready.
One game, and maybe more.