Murray ‘pleasantly surprised’ by Senators’ playoff berth

After a season in which the team’s fans were calling for his head, Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray now gets to take credit for a remarkable turnaround.

Murray ‘pleasantly surprised’ by Senators’ playoff berth

After a season in which the team’s fans were calling for his head, Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray now gets to take credit for a remarkable turnaround.

It’s one that even surprised him.

All general managers, of course, believe at the start of the regular season that their teams will make the playoffs, and Murray was no exception.

But he was also realistic.

Just as almost everything went wrong last season, almost everything would have to go right this season for the team to make the playoffs.

And they did, with the clinching of a playoff berth on Sunday afternoon in Uniondale, New York.

Murray wasn’t about to gloat, though. The business of professional hockey has a way of humbling the boastful.

“We thought we could be a competitive hockey team, but we also respected the league,” he said.

“It is so close now, there are so many good teams, that you’d have to have a really strong year to be in the playoffs, and we’ve had that.

“It didn’t look like that at the start, but a lot of the players have played extremely well.

“Some of the guys that were sort of off last year, our veteran guys, they really stepped up and did a big job.

“And I think a lot of it was the direction and the coaching they’ve received from the whole staff, and they brought along a lot of the younger players in the organization.

“So, yeah, I’m pleasantly surprised to a point. I think it’s a start in what we’re doing.”

When critics of the team consigned it to the Eastern Conference trash heap at the start of the season, Murray heard two complaints: Its veteran players were too old, and its young players were inexperienced.

Murray thinks it was a case of his critics not knowing his players as well as he did.

“I think they looked at (Chris) Phillips and (Filip) Kuba, and (Sergei) Gonchar and (Daniel Alfredsson) and even (Jason Spezza) to a degree and felt that they not able to rebound to a level that they did,” he said.

“The other part is that people probably didn’t respect is that we had a group in the minors that won a championship, and when you win, and you’re a winner, I think they grew a great deal in that two-month period.

“They weren’t the big scorers on our team, but they kind of came in and gave us role definition and allowed us to play hard every night.”

Goalie Craig Anderson said the players also wanted to prove themselves after hearing the pre-season criticism. It stung to hear that they were being picked to finish last.

“I think anytime someone challenges you, it’s either fight or flight,” he said.

“But we buckled down, put on the work boots, and fought. We started out with a 1-5 record and said to ourselves that it wasn’t good enough.

“We had a lot of pride and we showed through good leadership and good followers that we could do anything.”

Not to look past the playoffs, but next year’s team could even be better.

Murray said it was gut-wrenching to part with players such as Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly during last spring’s house cleaning, but a rebuilding did have to take place and the team drafted well with the resulting draft picks.

Consequently, the pipeline is poised to deliver a number of offensive prospects, including Mika Zibanejad, Stefan Noesen, and Matt Puempel, who were drafted last June, Mark Stone, who was drafted in 2010, and Jakob Silfverberg, who was drafted in 2009.

That’ll have some of the players on this year’s team sweating for their jobs.

Coach Paul MacLean thought a critical moment in the team’s final push for a playoff berth came on March 23 when it lost 5-1 to the Canadiens in Montreal.

It was as much a wake up call as the 7-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche and the 7-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first two weeks of the season.

They realized if they didn’t start playing better, they could find themselves out of the playoffs. Their response was to win four straight and clinch a berth.

“I think the fact that we lost, and how we lost, did it to us,” said MacLean.

“It was huge game that probably would have put us in (the playoffs) at that point. It would have put us up by eight points, I believe, and as a result we ended up getting back in the race for the playoffs.

“We were were kind of above it for a little bit, and I think the fact that we were back in it kind of gave us a spur and our leadership group took charge of that and got what we wanted.”

And now that they’re there, the players are looking forward to being this spring’s surprise team.

“You’ve just got to get yourself to the dance, and once you get there it’s a whole new ball game,” said Anderson.

“Anything can happen. You run into a hot goalie, hot player, hot power play, hot penalty killing – there are a few things that can go your way in a playoff series and help you win it.

“But first you have to be there, and right now we’ve got ourselves there.”

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