Ecstasy and agony

DON BRENNAN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:49 AM ET

Chris Phillips was still in his jersey long after his teammates had changed for the last time this season.

Slowly, deliberately, he pulled the laces from his skates. Finally, he rose from his stool in the Honda Center dressing room, then turned his back to the 30 or so waiting reporters while he removed his upper-body gear.

When he turned around again and lifted his head, the pain he felt was evident in his stare.

Inevitably, he accepted all questions, most specifically about the Anaheim Ducks' game-winner in their Stanley Cup clincher, a goal Phillips scored on netminder Ray Emery himself.

A man who cares so much about his team and his adopted city, Phillips' face was a picture of joy when he announced prior to the final that his wife Erin had delivered their third child.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, he had the look of ultimate sadness and sorrow in his eyes while he claimed total responsibility for his role in the Senators' demise, an extension of the same expression he wore as he skated along the glass after fumbling the puck into Emery's skates.

To have known Chris Phillips for more than 10 years at that point was to feel particularly terrible for him.

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To have known Chris Neil for almost 10 years was to feel particularly terrific for him on June 2.

To have watched the rugged winger grow up, from being the only reporter to request an interview with him when he was selected in the sixth round of the 1998 NHL entry draft, to witnessing his rise into not only a regular but an important cog on an Eastern Conference champion, to seeing his wide-eyed excitement the morning after his wife Caitlin give birth to their first child.

His big grin disappeared only once, and that was when he spoke of how his mother Jean, who died in a car crash a little more than a year earlier, and of how she would have enjoyed sharing the moment with him.

Otherwise, the snarl Neil has played with in becoming Ottawa's all-time penalty-minutes leader was flipped completely upside down and into the look of a little boy on Christmas morning.

That he would take the energy and positive vibes and turn them into the first game-winning goal in the modern-day Senators' first Stanley Cup final a few hours later was not as surprising as the fact that it would be the team's only game-winning goal in the series with the Ducks.

For on June 2, it looked like Ottawa was closing in on the Cup.

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Of course, seven and eight months previously, it looked like the Senators would not even make the playoffs.

Their game went from mediocre to poor as their top-paid player, Wade Redden, battled early-season injuries and their newly signed free-agent goalie, Martin Gerber, struggled to find his groove.

On Nov. 10 they turned a 44-17 shots on goal edge into a 6-3 road victory over Pittsburgh that snapped their longest losing streak in a decade at five games.

Another significant win would come four days later, after two more losses, when Emery returned from a hand injury -- and Phillips iced the result with a rink-long empty netter -- to beat Buffalo 4-2 at the HSBC Arena.

From that game on, Emery became the Senators' main man in nets.

Other memorable moments from this angle included:

- A Dec. 10 visit to Columbus that was the start of a four-game road trip. And what a horrible beginning it was. Gerber gave up four goals on 13 shots before being yanked, and the Senators could kill only 6-of-11 penalties in a 6-2 loss to the lowly Blue Jackets.

- A Dec. 11 visit to Detroit that, in front of the team's first-ever pay-per-view audience, was a reversal of form. In a showdown against former partner Dominik Hasek, Emery played his best game as an NHLer and made a franchise-record 43 saves. Jason Spezza scored two beauties and the Senators put three behind the Dominator in a 5:01 span of the second, then held on to win 3-2.

- Emery crashed back to earth hard, giving up six goals on 14 shots in Nashville two nights later. The Senators lost 6-0, but at least one first-time member of the visiting media discovered a new appreciation for country music.

- The ups and downs continued until an absurd rash of injuries that claimed Spezza, Mike Fisher and Antoine Vermette. Rather than fall apart, though, the Senators came together as a team. Minus his personal playmaker, Dany Heatley carried on with a drive and force that distinguished him as one of the league's top all-round players.

- An 8-3 home win over the hated Habs on Jan. 13 that saw Daniel Alfredsson score a goal and four assists and the Senators committ an unintentional yet nonetheless distasteful foul with a scoreboard skit in which a fan was swept off a ship. Only weeks earlier, the daughter of Montreal GM Bob Gainey was lost at sea.

- Mike Comrie, aquired when the Senators were losing those centres to injury, gave an inspired performance (and scored the shootout winner) in a Scotiabank Place victory over his old team, the Edmonton Oilers, on Feb. 20.

- A 4-3 shootout loss to Martin Havlat, Patrick Lalime and the rest of the Blackhawks on March 4 in a Chicago arena that was approximately one-third full.

- Comrie scoring twice in a March 31 victory that was Ottawa's eighth straight over Alexei Yashin's New York Islanders.

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Also etched in the memory bank forever will be:

- The first three rounds of the playoffs.

- Lightweights Comrie and Dean McAmmond fighting Penguins.

- Young Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby keeping his hands under the table at every press conference after it was written in the Sun that it was hard to hear him when they were in front of his face.

- Martin Brodeur allowing weak goals.

- Scott Gomez, his talent and his personality.

- Buffalo's Chip Strip on a spring night.

- Rubbing elbows with celebrities, celebrity lookalikes and various other VIPs in and around Hollywood.

- The breakfast buffet at the Anaheim Marriott.

- The hospitality of the NHL.


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