OTTAWA (CP) - The Ottawa Senators have taken more than just a big step toward shaking the label of "choking dogs" by advancing to the Eastern Conference final.
Their participation in the Stanley Cup semifinals will also help do away with the stigma attached to coach Bryan Murray: Good coach in the regular season, can't win in the playoffs.
When the Senators open the best-of-seven series against the Buffalo Sabres at HSBC Arena, Murray will step behind the bench in a conference final for the first time despite being in charge of some strong teams over his 16 seasons as NHL coach.
So, as much as it's been an achievement to get this far for a team that was called "choking dogs" by the media when the playoffs began because of its history of underachieving in the post-season, it's a big step in the career of the 64-year-old Murray.
"I've been very proud of my coaching career because of the teams I've had get over 100 points (and) for the type of team we had at the start of the year, which wasn't very good, to be a frontrunner in their division or conference at the time," he said Monday. "But to get over the second round, I think is a great sense of accomplishment."
The Senators resumed practising Monday for the first time since eliminating the New Jersey Devils in five games Saturday.
Murray, who earlier this season became only the fifth coach in NHL history to reach the 600-win plateau and is the active leader in regular-season games behind the bench (1,221), addressed that accomplishment with his players before their skate.
"I said to the players this morning they should be real proud of themselves," he said. "They should be real proud of the fact they worked this hard, sacrificed as much as they have and now have a chance to be in the final four to take a run at something really meaningful.
"Personally, that's a real nice achievement for myself, too."
Murray, a native of nearby Shawville, Que., has compiled a regular-season record of 613-459-149. As a coach with Washington, Detroit, Florida, Anaheim and Ottawa, his teams have made the playoffs in 11 of his 16 seasons, but, before this year, Murray was 39-49 in the post-season and his teams had lost 11-of-15 series.
Under Murray from 1983 and 1986, the Capitals won 48, 46 and 50 games, respectively, but couldn't get out of their division. The same fate befell the 1992-'93 Red Wings, who won 47 games but lost to Toronto in the first round.
"I've had several real good teams," Murray said. "But I've learned a lot as a coach.
"Being in management and then coaching again has helped me a great deal. The other thing that's helped me is having good assistants. You learn to get people that can help you."
Murray gave up his job as senior vice-president and general manager with Anaheim in June 2004 to replace Jacques Martin as the Senators head coach.
Martin had led Ottawa to its only other appearance in the conference final, in 2003 when the club lost in seven games to New Jersey. But, with his own history of struggling to get Ottawa out of its playoff rut, he was fired in the spring of 2004 following a first-round loss to Toronto.
In 2005-'06, Murray's first season behind the bench since missing the playoffs as Anaheim's coach in 2001-'02, he ran into a familiar situation.
The Senators' 52 wins and 113 points tied franchise highs, but they were bounced by the Sabres in five games in the second round.
So far this year, it has been a different story.
Ottawa started slowly before catching fire in the second half of the regular season to finish with 105 point before rolling past the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round, then dispatching the Devils.
The Senators were knocked for being too soft and passive under Martin.
Under Murray, they've taken on some of their coach's personality. Where Martin preferred to play things close to the vest when it came to talking about a player's or the team's performance, Murray doesn't hold back.
The Senators have taken on that approach on the ice, although Murray said he had to butt heads with some of his skill players, Jason Spezza for example, to buy into a more blue-collar way of thinking. Ottawa has shown the playoff intensity and aggression that wasn't present in previous
"That's why you like to coach or you like to teach," Murray said. "The rewards are (when) guys follow the plan, guys become better players.
"You hope you helped not only on the ice, but a little bit off the ice as well."
The team's performance this year certainly won't hurt Murray's future employment, considering his contract expires at season's end.
Senators GM John Muckler said Sunday that Murray's future "will take care of itself."
But whatever happens, Murray will at least enjoy the ride for the remainder of the playoffs.
Murray and the Senators are the toast of the town these days, the last Canadian team left to vie for the Stanley Cup. The potential for a long playoff run was a big reason why Murray decided to come to Ottawa in the first place.
"I wanted to be in a market like Ottawa where it really mattered, a sense of pride in the community," he said. "Not just the city of Ottawa but the whole area and the fact that there was a chance here to be successful."