BUFFALO, N.Y. (CP) - It seems absurd in retrospect.
Just six months ago billionaire owner Eugene Melnyk had to give GM John Muckler and head coach Bryan Murray a public vote of confidence with the Ottawa Senators off to a tepid 7-10-1 start, six points out of a playoff spot and rumours swirling on the job security of everyone in the organization.
Since that hastily organized conference call with reporters on Nov. 16, in which Melnyk told everyone to take a deep breath and relax, the Senators have gone 53-18-8 - including their 12-3 run in the playoffs that has them in their first-ever Stanley Cup final since re-entering the league in 1992.
"I believed in these guys from Day 1," a jubilant Melnyk said as he shook Muckler's hand shortly after his team's series clinching-win Saturday over the Buffalo Sabres. "I believe that these guys will go all the way."
Daniel Alfredsson - who else? - put the Senators in the Stanley Cup final with the overtime winner 9:32 into the fourth period Saturday, the captain adding another chapter to his glorious post-season.
"It's kind of surreal right now," Alfredsson said of his first-ever foray into the NHL's championship series.
It was fitting in too many ways that Alfredsson got the big goal, his 10th of the post-season, having been the goat on last year's overtime winner by the Sabres when Jason Pominville walked around him and beat Ray Emery to end yet another disappointing playoffs for the Senators in the second round.
"He's taken a lot of heat over the years," said Senators linemate Dany Heatley. "It's great to see him score big goals. He deserves it. He's a man on a mission."
Alfredsson, arguably the best player in this year's NHL playoffs, beat Ryan Miller with a low shot just inside the post on the glove side, stunning a sellout crowd of 18,690 at HSBC Arena.
"It surprised the heck out of me, I didn't get a really good look at it," said a dejected Miller.
The Senators knocked out the Sabres in five games a year after Buffalo turned the same trick on them in the second round.
"Last year was disappointing," said Sens goalie Ray Emery. "It didn't feel right losing to them. There was a lot of pride on the line for us in this series."
Ottawa will play either Anaheim or Detroit in the Cup final, the Western Conference final tied at two games apiece heading into Sunday's fifth game.
"Pick your poison with those two teams," said Heatley. "They're both great clubs."
Will the third time be a charm for Canada? The Senators hope to achieve what Calgary (2004) and Edmonton (2006) just failed doing in the last two championship finals, bring the Cup home to Canada. The old Senators did just that 80 years ago in 1927. No Canadian team has won Lord Stanley's prize since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993.
Ottawa, unlike the Flames and Oilers, won't be going into the Cup final as a big underdog, polishing off the President's Trophy winners in few games than most had predicted, serving notice to either Detroit or Anaheim what awaits them in the final series.
"I believe they've got a good shot," said Sabres star Daniel Briere. "Their top line is rolling on all cylinders. Their group of defencemen is really doing the job. They're getting timely goals from everyone. It seems everything is in line for them to win it."
Heatley and Jason Spezza also scored for the Senators on Saturday, who have won all three of their playoff series in five games.
Maxim Afinogenov and Jochen Hecht scored for the Sabres, who will have a President's Trophy banner hanging down from the rafters at HSBC Arena next season, but not the one they've dreamed of since coming into the league in 1970 - a Cup banner.
"It's just tough to swallow right now," said Briere. "I really believed this was our year."
Another loser was the NHL, which lost its national U.S. over-the-air TV audience when NBC dropped its coverage of the game to show the Preakness Stakes just before overtime. The end of Ottawa's victory was broadcast instead on Versus, the league's main cable rightsholder that reaches far fewer homes than NBC.
Big questions now follow the Sabres into the off-season with star centres Briere and Chris Drury both slated for unrestricted free agency July 1. Did they play their last game in a Sabres uniform Saturday?
"That's the last thing on my mind right now," said Briere. "But I've said all along I hope to be back."
The Sabres thought they took a big step when they reached the Eastern Conference final last year before losing to Carolina in seven games. It was Stanley Cup or bust this season and they had the regular season to back up that sentiment.
"The expectations were sky high," said Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff. "That room was as quiet as quiet can be. ... We still need to grow a little bit."
Buffalo fans get knocked for their fatalist attitude, but they were rocking Saturday, trying to push their team to a sixth game. An electric atmosphere didn't translate into electric hockey early on, both team somewhat tentative in a scoreless first period, the Sabres not registering their first shot on goal until eight minutes in.
Hecht got the sold-out crowd out of their seats 4:30 into the second period, jumping on a loose puck after a broken play in front of Emery, knocking in a backhand past the Sens goalie to give Buffalo the much-needed first goal it craved.
Ottawa got a great chance to get back into it moments later with a five-on-three power play for 48 seconds, but a big shot block from Drury and a crossbar hit by Spezza kept it 1-0 as Sabres fans roared their approval.
But as has been the case for most of the series, the Sabres couldn't contain Ottawa's star-studded big line. First Spezza grabbed a rebound and slid a pass over to Heatley who deposited into the empty side at 15:41. Then a beauty, Alfredsson with a nifty feed to Spezza on a two-on-one with only 39 seconds to go in the middle period, as Spezza went down to one knee for the old fist pump the air got sucked out of HSBC Arena.
The Sabres, however, didn't back down in the third period, outshooting Ottawa 11-3 and tying it on Afinogenov's power-play goal, the Russian winger slipping in a rebound at the side of the net at 10:58, a goal that blew the roof off the arena.
Moments earlier Drury took a Tim Connolly point shot in the face and headed straight to the dressing room. He did not return until two minutes into the overtime session.
The fans didn't back down with their boisterous support, singing along to Bon Jovi's Living On A Prayer with less than five minutes to go in the game, their beloved team's season very much living on a prayer.
Another Sabres power play with 2:50 to go in the third failed to yield a goal, producing the second overtime game of the series.
Buffalo went 1-for-7 on the power play and ended the series 2-for-29, a major reason for the their downfall.
Notes Game 1 hero Oleg Saprykin was a healthy scratch for Ottawa, replaced by Patrick Eaves, who had been out since sustaining a head injury in Game 3 of the Senators' first-round series with Pittsburgh. Tough guy Brian McGrattan and defenceman Lawrence Nycholat were the other notable scratches ... Forward Dainius Zubrus (lower body) was out for Buffalo, replaced in the lineup by rookie Drew Stafford. Forward Daniel Paille and tough guy Andrew Peters were healthy scratches.