Sens awaken city's spirit

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:50 AM ET

It was 57 days of joy, frustration, relief, admiration, consternation, and ultimately, the heartbreak that comes with being so close after coming so far.

The Senators' longest playoff run in modern history came up short of the ultimate goal, but now with the Anaheim Ducks having won California's first Stanley Cup comes the realization the trip was a reward unto itself.

No other single event in the city's modern sports history united its people like the day-to-day drama that was the Senators' attempt to win the city its first Stanley Cup in 80 years.

Nothing else inspired something like the Sens Mile on Elgin St., the downtown gathering place for fans either celebrating or commiserating over the latest outcome.

People at work, school and around the dinner table dissected the emergence of Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson as a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate, the driving habits of goaltender Ray Emery and the merits of the nightlife in Buffalo.

TOO EASY

They revelled in how the Senators' almost-too-easy roll to the final -- winning 12 of 15 games on the way -- drove Toronto Maple Leafs fans nuts.

They discovered Travis Moen and Samuel Pahlsson and Dustin Penner and likely saw their grudging respect for the quiet excellence of Ducks defenceman Scott Niedermayer, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, grow some more.

Along the way the Senators beat arguably the best player in the game in Pittsburgh Penguins young star Sidney Crosby, the NHL's best goaltender in Martin Brodeur with the New Jersey Devils and the best team in the league, the Presidents' Trophy-winning Buffalo Sabres, to reach their first Stanley Cup final.

The Senators never reached the peaks they did in the first three rounds against the big, tough Ducks in the final, but they went a long way in the playoffs towards rehabilitating their reputation as playoff underachievers.

Their remarkable run started with coach Bryan Murray going on the offensive a couple of days before their first game of the playoffs against the Penguins, blasting comments characterizing his club as "choking dogs," when it came to evaluating their playoff history.

In 10 straight playoff appearances, the Senators had advanced past the second round only once, in 2003.

"I think that's bulls--t, excuse me," said Murray. "All we ask for is a chance and we'd like (the media) to give us a chance as much as the players and the rest of the world gives us a chance."

Alfredsson, who had frequently been a lightning rod for the Senators' post-season disappointments, remained typically pragmatic about the situation.

"There's a lot of guys in here who want to prove people wrong and there's no better stage to do it on than with a lot of people watching," he said.

The Senators had the stage in Eastern Canada to themselves. For the first time since 1969-70, both the Montreal Canadiens and the Leafs had missed the playoffs in the same year.

The Senators had battled with the Penguins down the stretch for fourth place and home-ice advantage in the first round. The Penguins were the surprise team of the season, rebounding from last place the year before with a 105-point season.

The teams wound up tied but the Senators earned fourth place on the basis of more wins.

The presence of Crosby, the Art Ross Trophy winner and a finalist for the Hart Trophy as MVP, and the Senators' top line of Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza made this first-round series the marquee matchup of the East.

The key for the Senators would be shutting down Crosby and withstanding the physical challenges presented by winger Gary Roberts and agitator Colby Armstrong.

Murray opted not to use defence to stop Crosby, but offence. He put the Spezza line against the Crosby group with the thinking being that line would have the puck a lot of the time and force Crosby to play in his own zone.

The teams split the first two games in Ottawa before the Senators pulled out a victory in Game 3 at Mellon Arena.

Game 4 in Pittsburgh proved to be pivotal. The Senators had the opportunity to take a 3-1 chokehold on the series heading home.

The game was fierce and unlike the previous three, it was close-checking with some hard board work. Armstrong laid out Senators winger Patrick Eaves with a stiff shoulder check to the head as Eaves rounded the Penguins net, knocking Eaves out of the game and leaving him with a concussion.

Senators forward Dean McAmmond and Penguins forward Maxime Talbot fought and there was a harsh, dangerous undertone to the series.

The game was tied 1-1 after two periods and Senators coach Bryan Murray ripped into his team in the second intermission for letting a great opportunity slip away. He questioned their attitude and, as an exclamation point, wrote the word on the white board in the dressing room.

The Senators went out and got the only goal of the third period from defenceman Anton Volchenkov.

The game was significant for a few reasons. The Senators were showing they were capable of playing the tight game needed at this time of year. They showed they wouldn't be intimidated when the physical game got ratcheted up.

Long accused of lacking a killer instinct, they won a hard-nosed game that put the Penguins on the brink of elimination.

Back in Ottawa for Game 5, they closed them out 3-0.

Murray's decision to use the Spezza line against Crosby was a smart move. Crosby, who it turned out was playing on a fractured foot, was limited to having an impact on the power play and that was about it.

PAYBACK TIME

The Senators' opponents in the second round were old adversaries, the New Jersey Devils, the team that had spoiled Ottawa's most successful spring in 2003, beating the Senators in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.

The Devils were coming off a victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, a series in which Brodeur gave up some soft goals.

He gave up five goals to the Sens in Game 1 of their series in New Jersey and, in an unusual move, switched to new gloves and pads for Game 2.

He stopped 43 of 45 shots as the Devils won in double overtime on a goal by Jamie Langenbrunner.

But the Senators again showed they were different from past teams. They won both games at home to put a chokehold on the series with Brodeur giving up some soft goals, most notably a shot from along the goal line by Heatley for the go-ahead goal in Game 4.

After Game 4, perhaps in an attempt to deflect the attention from himself and his team's position, Brodeur launched an attack on Emery.

"I think we finally proved to ourselves that if we shoot the puck on Emery, he won't look too good," said Brodeur. "I think we exposed him a little with his rebound control."

As it turned out, Emery's driving control was the bigger issue.

On the eve of Game 5, Emery overslept in the afternoon. Rushing in his white Hummer to make the Senators' charter flight, he was involved in a minor accident on the Queensway.

No one was injured, but Emery was given a ticket for an improper lane change and missed the flight. He flew commercial and landed in trouble.

Emery's accident was the topic du jour the morning of Game 5. Murray opted to manage the situation with some humour.

"I wish I could sleep like that," he said.

Emery wound up stopping 27 shots as the Senators eliminated the Devils in five games.

"I was just pumped. I felt bad. I didn't want to be the turning point of the playoffs because if we lost that game, you guys (the media) would be all over me," said Emery.

The Senators were gathering momentum. Alfredsson had the look of a confident leader. Spezza was being responsible with the puck and helping power the big line.

Emery was giving them solid, if unspectacular, goaltending and the role players were stepping up.

The Senators had another break, this time for four days, after the Buffalo Sabres eliminated the New York Rangers.

That set up an Eastern Conference final that was a rematch of last spring's second-round contest which the Sabres had won in five games.

BORING BUFFALO

Emery set a tone for the series when he offered a comment that he had hoped the Rangers would win because Manhattan has more down-time options than Western New York.

All of a sudden there was nothing to do in Buffalo and the Ottawa goaltender was "Public Emery No. 1" with Sabre fans.

As they had in their previous two series, the Senators won the opening game 5-2, getting the winner from fourth-line winger Oleg "Freakin'" Saprykin, a trade deadline pickup.

It was redemption for the fourth line, which had been on the ice for the Sabres' first goal earlier in the game.

For the first time in their history, the Senators went up 2-0 in a series as Joe Corvo's bouncing shot beat Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller for the winner in overtime.

The Senators were continuing to add to their new playoff identity as a grittier, more composed team, overcoming a 2-0 deficit in the game and then a goal by Buffalo's Daniel Briere with just 5.8 seconds left in regulation time to force overtime.

Senators defenceman Wade Redden was particularly forceful in his comments in the intermission after regulation time.

"Wade and a couple of the other guys were the most outspoken," said Murray. "I know I was upset. But halfway through the intermission they were all focused again."

Focus. Composure. The Senators seemed to have them.

Spezza had three assists in the game as the big line was now running 1-2-3 in playoff scoring.

Back in Ottawa, the Senators took Game 3 and put the Sabres down 3-0.

The Sabres faced a near-impossible task now, though the talk before Game 4 was brave.

"I think the way we're looking at it, there's two choices: Curl up and cry about it and go home or we can fight like dogs," said Buffalo centre Chris Drury. "Hopefully we show up and fight like crazy."

They did.

Clarence-Rockland native Derek Roy scored nine seconds into Game 4 and the Senators never recovered, dropping a 3-2 decision at Scotiabank Place and sending the series back to Buffalo for Game 5.

As they had in the previous three rounds, the Senators closed out their opponent in five games, Alfredsson scoring the biggest goal in franchise history to that point, beating Miller with a double-clutched shot in overtime.

After wondering if Alfredsson would touch the Prince of Wales Trophy, he did when it was presented by NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

"I'm only superstitious about not being superstitious," said Alfredsson.

It had taken him 25 years, but Murray finally got a chance to coach in the Stanley Cup final.

'PROUD'

"It means I can coach," said Murray, who had chided, coaxed and cajoled this bunch and did exactly what he said he would do.

"It means a lot, just to be able to come back to Ottawa where you've grown up, been around a lot of family and friends who are big fans," said Murray, quietly. "We just have to make them as proud as we possibly can now in the finals."

The Anaheim Ducks had ground their way through the Western Conference, chewing up and spitting out the Minnesota Wild, Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings to make it to their second final in four years.

They had a solid goaltender, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, two Norris Trophy candidates in Niedermayer and Chris Pronger and a mix of big, burly wingers mixed in with speed and skill.

They were the most penalized team in the playoffs and that looked like it would make them vulnerable against the Senators, their big line and their power play.

The Senators had to wait nine days for the start of the final.

Maybe it was the inactivity.

Maybe it was the Ducks' strength and tenacity, but the Senators never really got traction against the Ducks.

Not only did the Spezza line not score at even strength against the Ducks in the early going, but Moen and then Pahlsson victimized them for the winning goals in Games 1 and 2 in Anaheim.

Spezza went back to commiting turnovers. Heatley was almost invisible.

Only one team had ever lost the first two games of the final on the road and come back to win the Cup, the 1971 Montreal Canadiens.

The Senators found themselves in that situation as much as anything because of their inability to score during two lengthy 5-on-3 advantages they were handed, one in each of the first two games.

The Senators returned home to find a city transformed. There were a few hundred enthusiastic fans to greet them at the airport. The Sens Mile on Elgin St. had become the focal point and the most outward sign of the fans investing their passion and emotion in this team.

The Senators, meanwhile, tried to figure out what had gone wrong in the first two games.

"Well, the first night, we probably tried to do too much," said Spezza. "The second night, we tried to do too little."

They fixed some of it for Game 3 at Scotiabank Place, the building swelling with fans and emotion as never before.

Senators winger Chris Neil, who had become a father the night before with the birth of daughter Hailey Jean, was feeling it. He personified the Senators on the night, scoring the first goal and running over people as the Senators overcame three one-goal deficits for a 5-3 win and new life.

In the third period, Pronger had caught Senators forward Dean McAmmond in the head with an elbow, knocking him out. There was no penalty on the play, but everybody knew the story wasn't going to end there.

Pronger had been suspended two weeks earlier for ramming Detroit Red Wings forward Tomas Holmstrom's head into the glass.

Just after 1 p.m. the next day, the word came down: Pronger was suspended for Game 4.

The Ducks played without Pronger. The Senators played without McAmmond.

Murray shuffled his lines in Game 4, trying to lessen the impact of the Pahlsson line.

The Senators battled back to tie the game 2-2 late in the second on Heatley's first goal of the final, but with the game on the line early in the third, they cracked.

More specifically, the skate of Senators defenceman Chris Phillips cracked. Right in half.

It would prove to be a damning bit of misfortune. Phillips put on a pair of backup skates and returned to the ice, but he immediately knew something wasn't right.

"One of the skates had a pretty weak edge," he said.

He quickly returned to the bench and Wade Redden jumped on to replace him. There was confusion at the Ottawa blue line. Ducks forward Teemu Selanne swept by the flat-footed Redden and found Penner alone in front of Emery for the winning goal.

Phillips' bad luck continued in Game 5. He had a shot by McDonald go in off his foot for the first goal. He got caught up ice on Niedermayer's goal that made it 2-0.

NIGHTMARE

After Alfredsson made it 2-1, Phillips had the worst nightmare unfold. He mishandled the puck as he circled the net and had the puck go in off Emery's skate.

"Now I know how Steve Smith feels," said Phillips, referring to the Edmonton Oilers defenceman who put the puck in off goaltender Grant Fuhr, costing the Oilers a series against the Calgary Flames in 1986.

The Ducks went on to score three more unanswered goals, emphatically ending the Sens' dream.

The Senators had a great run this spring. They united a city. They went farther than they have ever been in the playoffs, but, in the end, that might have made the end even more difficult.

"To get within an arm's length of the Stanley Cup and not get it is tough," said Phillips.

The immediate feeling in the Senators' sullen dressing room was bitter disappointment, of course. That feeling will subside.

What is important now is how the experiences of the past 57 days help move this franchise forward.


Videos

Photos