PITTSBURGH - Three hundred and 11 days after coach Paul MacLean admitted they were “schooled” by the Penguins in the second round of the 2013 playoffs, another Senators season came to an end at Consol Energy Center.
This time, of course, Ottawa didn’t even make it to the classes that are the NHL post-season tournament. This time, the Senators bowed away after a terribly disappointing regular season that sees them finish 11th in the 15-team Eastern Conference.
This season, no matter how its dressed up in the next couple of days, the Senators were failures.
With the return to health of stars Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, the Senators thought they were ready to take the next step - why else would they trade two promising prospects and a first round pick for sniper Bobby Ryan otherwise - but instead took a stride backwards.
Their 37-31-14 record may not look so ugly, but it left them five points shy of being able to play for the Stanley Cup. And even though they’ve now missed the playoffs for three times in six years, having to go home after Game 82 is still unacceptable in a city that saw its team qualify for the big dance 11 straight seasons before that.
GM Bryan Murray has some tough decisions that were probably made a little tougher by the fact the Senators finished 2013-14 with a flurry.
In outlasting the Penguins with a 3-2 shootout victory Sunday night, the Senators won their season high fifth straight game.
Kyle Turris and Jason Spezza scored shootout goals, while Robin Lehner gave up zip in winning his fourth shootout in a row.
Turris, with his team-leading 26th of the season, and Mark Stone scored for Ottawa during regulation time.
Jussi Jokinen and Lee Stepniak were the Penguins to solve Robin Lehner, who made 26 saves.
Already without injured star Evgeni Malkin and some starting pluggers, the injury-riddled Penguins didn’t take any chances with their first round playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets on the horizon. They made healthy scratches of three key players - captain Sidney Crosby, Norris Trophy candidate Matt Niskanen and centre Brandon Sutter - and used backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff instead of starter Marc-Andre Fleury.
“Every game matters,” MacLean said before the game. “This doesn’t matter, as we said the last couple of games, in the standings for points, or to get into the playoffs. But it still matters for a lot of people finding their way.
“For us, to be able to say we finished the season on a five game winning streak, it might be hollow at this point in time, in a lot of ways, but at the same time we get a chance to feel good about yourself, for just a little bit. Everyone is going to be disappointed that you’re not in the playoffs, and that’s going to be enough, but the fact that we found a way to continue to play and to win, and play well, I think is a big factor for us.”
Stepniak put the Penguins ahead at 5:16 of the second, deflecting a shot with Patrick Wiercioch standing beside him just after Jason Spezza lost a defensive zone faceoff.
Stone tied the game on the power play at 17:14 on the power play, banging in a rebound off his own original shot for his fourth of the season.
The teams exchanged power play goals in a first period that saw the Senators outshoot the Penguins 9-6.
Jussi Jokinen opened the scoring with a flukey goal at the 14:46 mark, as Milan Michalek was in the box for hooking.
Jokinen was trying to make a pass to James Neal, but the puck instead went off Eric Gryba’s skate and in between Lehner’s feet.
Turris got that one back for Ottawa just less than four minutes later, and with one second left on a penalty to Harry Zolnierczyk, to end his personal slump at seven games. Taking a cross-slot pass from Erik Karlsson, Turris blasted a slap shot by Jeff Zatkoff on the short side.
The only other highlight of the first period was a spirited fight between Chris Neil and Tanner Glass. Neil took a couple of good rights that cut him under the left eye, but he hung in tough and wound up putting Glass down to end the scrap.
The dustup pushed Neil’s NHL-leading penalty minutes total to 211.
“Chris Neil brings an element to the game that not many teams have,” said MacLean. “And it’s an important part of what makes the Ottawa Senators a good team.”