The Ottawa Senators threw a surprise party for their fans this week.
Picture the dream sequence: 20 players jumping out from behind the team bench, shouting “surprise!” and waving playoff tickets at a startled audience (dream ends — tickets are not free).
Ah, but at least the playoff tickets are for real. Tickets they’d kill for in Toronto or Montreal about now.
“Pinch me, I’m dreaming,” was a common fan reaction after the Senators put on a late-season surge to nail down one of the eight playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, with a full week to spare in the regular season.
Maybe they did it just to show how wrong hockey experts from across the country can be. Most analysts figured the Senators, in the first full year of a rebuilding program, would finish at or near the bottom of the conference.
Seemed to make sense at the time.
Consider: After missing the playoffs in 2010-11, the Senators were confronting a full season without Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly, their second and third line centres dealt away near the 2011 trade deadline. They would have to rely on AHL Binghamton grads, such as Colin Greening, Zack Smith and Erik Condra. Captain Daniel Alfredsson, coming off back surgery, would turn 39 before Christmas. Veteran defencemen Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba were coming off difficult seasons and 21-year-old defenceman Erik Karlsson had things to learn about being a top-pair defenceman.
After coming over prior to the trade deadline in a goalie swap with Colorado, Craig Anderson was a godsend over the final weeks of the 2010-11 season. But would he be able to pull it off over a full campaign, behind a young team?
Surprisingly, the Senators turned the question marks into exclamation marks.
Only a rough patch to the start the season — five losses in the first six games while getting outscored 30-16 — was a fit for the dire predictions. After that, under the calm direction of rookie head Paul MacLean (who actually had a wealth of NHL experience as an assistant), the Senators played with a confidence and a refuse-to-quit mantra that served them throughout.
Virtually every aspect of the Senators’ 82-game run to a playoff berth can be slotted in the category of a surprise, ranging somewhere between a moderate revelation and the 1980 Miracle On Ice. Add them all up and it’s easier to see how Ottawa became a playoff team again:
Karlsson put together the finest offensive season of any defenceman in the history of the franchise. By the All-Star Game, Karlsson had himself in the Norris Trophy conversation, and by April he was a Norris Trophy front-runner.
With the help of a career year by winger Milan Michalek, centre Jason Spezza turned in perhaps his finest season, securing a place among the NHL scoring leaders and into the conversation about league MVP.
Having Alfredsson healthy enough to be in the lineup more often than not would have been symbolically uplfiting, but the NHL’s longest serving captain had bigger plans, anchoring Ottawa’s second line, highly productive at even strength and on the power play.
Anderson was the stabilizing force the Senators hoped he would be. And when he was injured in a fluke accident at home, missing a month of action late in the season, the club turned it into a positive by acquiring St. Louis Blues prospect Ben Bishop. Bishop instantly vaulted into the backup goalie position.
The players themselves seem the least surprised of all. A playoff team? Why wouldn’t this band of 23 professional, competitive players believe it was going to be in the picture by the first week of April?
Anderson, one of the bricks on which the foundation for this pleasant season was constructed, said as much before the Senators had played their first meaningful game of the season.
“If you came into the room every year thinking you weren’t going to be in the playoffs, you wouldn’t be in this league,” Anderson told us in training camp. “You come in here with the attitude that you guys can beat anybody and youth, age, experience, it doesn’t mean anything once the puck gets dropped out there. In general, it comes down to who wants it more.”
On most nights, the Senators “wanted it more.” Hunger was a factor, beyond question.
Still, from the outset, diminished expectations were the Senators’ best friend. Without the pressure of knowing they had to be in the top eight of the Eastern Conference, the Senators had room to grow, without concern about being ripped in the papers, booed from the stands, or booted back to Bingo.
“The expectations not being as high as in the past, it could be a bit easier for the young guys to play with confidence and know they’re relied upon,” Spezza said early on.
“When you’re on a real good club you feel you’re going to be out of the lineup the first time you make a mistake because the team’s so good and there’s so many guys biting at your heels. We’ve tried to make guys as comfortable as possible. Let guys know they’re here for the year, their jobs are safe — it’s not fighting for jobs, it’s fighting to be good NHL players.”
Most of them did. And when Peter Regin went down with a season-ending shoulder injury, general manager Bryan Murray acquired Kyle Turris to replace Regin as second line centre.
Though he needs to get stronger, Turris, 22, fit in nicely alongside Alfredsson. How much better will Turris become? We caught a glimpse on April 1 when Alfredsson (flu) and Spezza (fatherhood) were suddenly unavailable and Turris was asked to take on more responsibility. Turris responded with one of his best games as a Senator.
On defence, the Senators enjoyed major rebounds by veterans Chris Phillips, Filip Kuba and Sergei Gonchar, which dovetailed nicely with the development of Karlsson and Jared Cowen. For a while, Cowen was logging big minutes, but toward the end of the season Phillips slipped back into the top four to allow Cowen time to develop.
Guiding the operation with a steady hand was MacLean, who always seemed to find the right balance — driving his young players without discouraging them. Skating and work ethic were the top priorities.
“That’s the kind of team we want to become,” MacLean would say, after playing against a club like Detroit or Chicago.
Until then, year one of Murray’s rebuild could not have gone much better. With Swedes Mika Zibanejad and Swedish Elite League MVP Jakob Silfverberg among the prospects on the horizon, year two might not be so bad, either.