No one will ever say the Ottawa Senators didn't earn their rightful place among the top eight in the Eastern Conference in 2012-13.
The Senators advanced to the Stanley Cup Playoffs despite missing No. 1 center Jason Spezza for almost all of the regular season, missing Norris Trophy defenseman Erik Karlsson for more than two months, and playing without No. 1 goaltender Craig Anderson and high-scoring forward Milan Michalek for lengthy periods because of injuries.
"It's a tremendous credit to our players, first of all, and their perseverance through quite a bit of adversity this season," Ottawa coach Paul MacLean said. "For us to make the playoffs under the circumstances that we were put under early in the season, I think is a great accomplishment by the group, and the players deserve all of the credit because they came out and played real hard."
But don't let the coach deflect all the praise; he, too, played a big role in all this by maintaining a business-like approach while holding every player accountable. He benched players and called others up from the team's American Hockey League affiliate several times throughout the season. The Senators haven't advanced beyond the conference quarterfinal round since 2006-07, when the team reached the Stanley Cup Final.
But there's optimism brewing in Canada's capital, especially after Thursday's dramatic return of Karlsson, who just 10 weeks earlier suffered a 70-percent tear of his Achilles tendon. He was paired with Marc Methot, earned 27:11 of ice time, assisted on both Senators goals and attempted 12 shots on net during his team's playoff-clinching 2-1 overtime victory against the Washington Capitals.
"I felt OK," Karlsson said. "I battled some issues out there and didn't feel quite as comfortable as I'm used to, but overall it was a solid game. I still have to work through some mistakes and clean those up."
The 6-foot, 175-pound Swede appears ready for the second season. But keep in mind that in order for Karlsson to experience playoff hockey, the Senators had to go 16-10-4 without him.
The Senators lost more than 215 man games to injury this season, yet won half their games while yielding the fewest goals of the eight remaining clubs in the Eastern Conference. Ottawa might just be the team that no other club in the East would be particularly thrilled to be matched up against this postseason.
Here are five reasons why the Senators clinched a playoff spot:
1. Alfie's team
Captain Daniel Alfredsson has long been considered the heart and soul of the Senators, but there was something about the circumstances surrounding this season and what Ottawa had to endure that may have elevated the 40-year-old's legendary status even more. No matter who was in the lineup, whether young or old, they looked to Alfredsson for advice and leadership, and were never disappointed.
On top of that, he also supplied some offense, finished among the top five on the team in goals, assists and points, and averaged over 19 minutes of ice time each game. Many of the young players credited Alfredsson, in addition to veterans Chris Phillips and Chris Neil, for keeping everyone in focus throughout the season.
"I think [Alfredsson] does an outstanding job and he has made my job way easier coming here," MacLean said. "To me, he has been tremendous. A big reason why this team is having the success it is having is because Daniel Alfredsson is the captain."
2. Hey youngster, you're up!
The Senators totaled 13 rookies in the lineup at one point or another, and most of them played a significant role in the team's success. Prior to general manager Bryan Murray obtaining first-year forward Cory Conacher in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning on April 3, the team was already receiving regular contributions from forwards Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg and defensemen Patrick Wiercioch and Eric Gryba.
"Young enthusiasm is rubbing off on us older guys, and I think our experience helps them calm down in some situations," Alfredsson said.
Forwards Erik Condra, Colin Greening and Jim O'Brien and defensemen Wiercioch and Gryba are home-grown players who worked their way up through the team's AHL affiliate in Binghamton and together celebrated a Calder Cup in 2011. Condra, Greening and O'Brien are in their second seasons.
"I think a lot of us, we're young and we don’t know any better," Condra said. "We just go out there and have fun and play our game."
3. The influence behind the bench
MacLean won't publicly admit it, but he's a big reason why the Senators are experiencing so much success with a makeshift roster.
His calm demeanor and ability to communicate with his players are keys to the team's successful run. While MacLean can be testy at times with the media, particularly when asked about the status of Karlsson for the 100th time over the course of a day, he is genuine and reflective in his responses. He doesn't stand for losing, no matter who is in or out of the lineup.
"I think it's important in the NHL today that the coach and players communicate," MacLean said after he was hired by GM Bryan Murray on June 14, 2011. "Communication with the players is important in empowering them and having them invest in what you're trying to do and what you're trying to accomplish."
At no time was that more evident than this season.
4. Proficient penalty-killers
The Senators will close out the regular season with one of the best penalty-killing units in the League. The team sports an 88.3-percent efficiency shorthanded and is among the top five in the league in allowing the fewest goals while a man short.
It's a big improvement over last season, when Ottawa finished 20th in the League with an 81.6-percent efficiency. Leading the team while shorthanded are defensemen Phillips, Methot, Sergei Gonchar and Gryba and forwards Condra and Alfredsson. Silfverberg and Karlsson are the only players to register goals while shorthanded this season.
5. The men between the pipes
Despite spending nearly two months on the shelf with an ankle injury, Senators goalie Craig Anderson remains one of the National Hockey League's elite goalies. He leads the League with the highest save percentage (.942) and lowest goals-against-average (1.68), has stopped 614 of 652 shots in regulation and overtime and has notched three shutouts in 2012-13.
Anderson was stellar, allowing just one goal on 20 shots, in the Senators' 2-1 overtime win against the Capitals to clinch a playoff berth on Thursday at Verizon Center.
The team received great goaltending from Ben Bishop when Anderson went down with his injury, but Bishop was dealt to Tampa Bay in the Cory Conacher trade. That opened the door for 21-year-old Swede Robin Lehner, a rookie who has done well when called upon, with a 2.22 GAA and .936 save percentage.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL
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