Great expectations

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 10:02 AM ET

TORONTO -- As the Senators boarded their Starjet Charter at Macdonald-Cartier International Airport yesterday, the warm weather made it feel a lot more like summer than early fall.

That might be a good omen, since playing in the Stanley Cup final in June is clearly the goal for this team.

When the Senators drop the puck on their 14th season tonight against the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre, the road to the Cup will officially begin. For the Senators, there's plenty of pressure to produce.

Everywhere you turn these days, noted hockey experts are picking the Senators to finally come through and get the Cup that GM John Muckler has so badly wanted to get since arriving on the scene four years ago.

Rogers Sportnet's Nick Kypreos, Darren Dreger and Bill Watters are all picking the Senators to win the Cup. TSN's Pierre McGuire and Bob McKenzie have also followed suit. Six writers at the Globe and Mail all picked Ottawa. The Hockey News put the Sens third in the Eastern Conference behind Philadelphia and Tampa Bay.

This isn't exactly unfamiliar territory for the Senators, who have been highly touted in the past and failed to live up to their lofty billing. They have faded out when push came to playoff shove and watched the finals on television with the other 27 teams who fell short of playing for the coveted mug.

That being said, none of this latest round of outside pressure makes the Senators worry one bit. Only they can decide if this going to be their dream season after what can only be called a lot of playoff disappointment.

"Predictions are for somebody else to do ... Performance is for us to do," said Senators coach Bryan Murray on the eve of his first game behind the bench.

"We have to go out and meet the standards and the goals that we have set for ourselves. I wasn't here for what happened in the past, but I've had the lesson.

"I just want to make sure we try hard every night and it would be nice to go in there (tonight) and spoil their home opener just the way Buffalo wants to do to us Saturday."

The Senators have changed their look since being knocked out of the playoffs by the Leafs in the first round in 2004 -- the last time NHL hockey was played for real. Patrick Lalime (St. Louis), Todd White (Minnesota), Radek Bonk (Montreal), Marian Hossa (Atlanta) and coach Jacques Martin (Florida) all have moved to new addresses since then.

HASEK KEY ADDITION

Now, goalie Dominik Hasek is going to carry the bulk of the work in net. Jason Spezza has been moved to the No. 1 centre position and Dany Heatley is going to be asked to carry a lot of the scoring load. Captain Daniel Alfredsson, Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, Zdeno Chara and Martin Havlat are all going to be asked to play big roles.

Despite all the predictions, several questions remain about this club. The most familiar one: Are the Senators tough enough?

Rugged winger Chris Neil has been joined by Brian McGrattan, who led the AHL with 565 penalty minutes last season.

"We're tougher. I think we're tougher mentally ... not only physically," said Muckler. "That is important for us to feel that way going into this season. "I think they feel among themselves they're a tougher hockey club.

"The way (Murray) coaches has changed our mentality. He uses the better players. If a player is having a good game, he'll play them and they know that. That has helped. They know if they play well, they are going to be rewarded."

But are they tough enough?

"Look, people are always going to ask that question about us until we go out and prove it on the ice," said Alfredsson. "I think we're tougher and we know we're going to play tough, but we can't answer that kind of question until we go out and play. That's why we play the games. Once we go out and play, we'll be able to answer the questions whether we're tougher or not."

We'll find out starting tonight.


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