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Senators entering season with bigger expectations

Pressure on after surprise trip to Eastern Conference Final

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The spotlight has found the Ottawa Senators. They might want to find some cover.

"Ever since I've been here, it's been one of our issues," captain Erik Karlsson said during the Player Media Tour earlier this month. "We've done well with low expectations and not done so well with [high] expectations."

 

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The Senators haven't qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in back-to-back seasons since 2011-12 and 2012-13. That's the only time they've done it since their run of 11 straight trips to the playoffs came to an end in 2008. That was Karlsson's draft year, and the year after they reached the Stanley Cup Final.

They nearly had the same run last season, when little was expected of them. The Senators lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in double overtime against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was a marvelous run that got the NHL community thinking about Ottawa and considering the Senators a Stanley Cup threat again. It brought a buzz back to Canada's capital city.

"Everywhere that I've been this summer, people are excited about the team that we're going to field this year," general manager Pierre Dorion said. "People are shaking hands. I don't think I had one person that told me to get lost."

But with all that comes the danger of those high expectations that Karlsson mentioned, and already the Senators' ability to meet them is being tested by injuries.

Karlsson, the runner-up for the Norris Trophy last season, won't be ready for the start of the season. He's still recovering from offseason foot surgery. While he hopes to play in October, that's far from a guarantee for the two-time Norris winner.

Center Derick Brassard is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. That meant there was an opening for rookie Colin White, but White will miss at least the first month of the season after wrist surgery on Sept. 19.

Video: Discussing Erik Karlsson's injury

As if that's not enough, forward Clarke MacArthur, whose return late last season from a concussion sustained in the preseason provided inspiration to the Senators, failed his physical before training camp began. His future is in doubt.

"There are lots of obstacles, but if you look at our last year, our whole year was about adversity," coach Guy Boucher said. "We had so much adversity, so many things to deal with, that I think we're going into this season and we're not afraid of that adversity. You choose how you react to things. You get in there and it's a threat or a challenge, and I think it's a strength of our group that we see things as a challenge. It's become a habit to be this way, and that's why I'm excited coming in and facing any challenges we've got in front of us."

They've got two big ones on the schedule in the first two-plus months of the season.

The Senators will play two games in Stockholm against the Colorado Avalanche in the 2017 SAP NHL Global Serieson Nov. 10-11. They will host an outdoor game against the Montreal Canadiens, the 2017 Scotiabank NHL100 Classic at Lansdowne Park in downtown Ottawa, on Dec. 16.

These events provide further explanation for why the spotlight will be shining on the Senators, and more evidence as to why they won't be able to lie in the weeds and be the surprise team as they were last season.

"This is probably the most excited I've been ever as an owner of the team," owner Eugene Melnyk said. "There's just so much going on."

That also means the Senators have a lot to deal with, including a seven-game, 14-day road trip from Nov. 29 through Dec. 12 because Canadian Tire Center is hosting a major curling event.

In addition, they will play eight of their 18 sets of back-to-back games before the calendar flips to 2018.

Put it all together, including the injuries that hurt the Senators' depth, something they relied on last season, and it could impact their ability to get off to a strong start, which was a big reason they sustained enough success to get into the playoffs last season.

The Senators were 20-11-3 through 34 games last season, good for almost a 104-point pace, which would have been enough to finish first in the Atlantic Division. They went 24-17-7 in their final 48 games, a 93-point pace, which wouldn't have been enough to get them into the playoffs.

"If you're already planning for problems, they're coming," Boucher said. "We're planning for attitudes to want more every day. We're planning for a work ethic to be relentless. We're planning for discipline and sticking to our strengths. Really, in terms of the approach, it's a humble one in a sense that we understand where our success came from last year and the minute we let things slide or we ease up on anything, whether it's our practice intensity or habits on and off the ice, we're not going to deserve anything. This league is all about deserving."

The Senators deserve the spotlight. They earned it with what they did last season, with how they took the Stanley Cup champions to the brink.

But how they handle the heat early this season despite all the obstacles will decide if they have a chance to meet their higher expectations.

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