Someone might want to check the shifter on the Senators' bandwagon, because it seems permanently stuck in fifth gear -- an odd sensation to be sure, after riding in neutral for so long.
The Sens may not have brought the Stanley Cup home last season, but they did earn something else in the process: Additional fans. Lots of them.
A decade's worth of playoff berths were enough to earn a solid, largely placid and occasionally cynical base of supporters. But after its first trip to the Stanley Cup final in modern franchise history, Ottawa currently finds itself with an embarrassment of riches in the stands.
With normally quieter happenings such as the summer development camp and pre-season open practices turning into full-fledged events, it's obvious that the Sens have tapped into something significant. Season ticket sales have also skyrocketed -- the team had surpassed the 12,000 mark for 2007-08 before the finals were completed in June.
However, the most obvious change may have been evident on Thursday night's home opener vs. the Leafs, when it actually felt like ... well, a home game. For years, Sens supporters wishing to attend a game featuring their Ontario rivals were forced to sit alongside boisterous Leafs fans in mass numbers, occasionally accounting for nearly half of the evening crowd. Views from the top of the arena resembled a red, white and blue mosaic, with words being chanted that you'd never be able to find in a dictionary -- "Lens" and "Seafs," depending on your hearing.
And while Leafs fans were still in attendance on Thursday, their presence and numbers seemed noticeably dwarfed by the aura of the scarlet-coated hometown crowd. Surely the organization will always be content to have bodies in the seats despite their rooting preference, but you would have to think they were pleased to witness this turning of the tide.
So far, the Sens have been doing everything necessary in order to continue riding this surging wave of popularity for as long as possible. Locking up core components for enviable amounts (Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov and Mike Fisher) as well as elite wingers on the verge of unrestricted free agency (Dany Heatley) drive home the point that this team intends to compete for some time.
Unfortunately, the future matters very little if the Sens are unable to compete today. Based on a significant portion of media reaction after the first two games vs. the Leafs, you'd find it hard to believe that the Senators were victorious on the road and at home. How the franchise truly handles the early portion of the year remains to be seen, and seasoned followers are familiar with the pitch and roll that this team can take - particularly after the events of last season, when the Sens were tanking at the 15-game mark.
But what about new supporters who have experienced nothing but hype and goodwill since hopping aboard the red bandwagon late last season? It's hard enough as it is to keep existing fans in a positive frame of mind should the season turn sour -- fortunately, the majority have proved willing enough to tough out the difficult times. However, these neophyte fans don't have a great deal invested in their new team of choice, and it would be very easy for them to become indifferent if Ottawa flounders, particularly during the early months.
The Senators have stressed the importance of starting the season on the right foot, without a so-called "Stanley Cup hangover," but there are many positive residual effects from that championship run that the franchise is desperate to maintain. For the first time in years, the amount of Senators supporters has surged.
Now the Sens must maintain that momentum with success on the ice, to ensure that their newfound tidal wave of fans doesn't turn into a ripple.