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Ottawa navigates a treacherous road to postseason

by Adam Kimelman

After a tremulous regular season Dany Heatley and the Ottawa Senators will have to find some consistency if they hope to make a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Ottawa Senators nearly completed their journey to the Stanley Cup a season ago. For 2007-08, they returned hungrier and more experienced, but their road back to the playoffs was a bumpy one.

First was a summer front-office housecleaning, as coach Bryan Murray was promoted to general manager, replacing John Muckler, who left the organization. Murray then tabbed his assistant, John Paddock, as the new coach. Paddock was a popular choice among the players, as he had coached a number of them in his three seasons at Binghamton, the Senators’ American Hockey League affiliate. And those players made their opinions known to Murray.

"I have to listen to the people affected by this decision on a daily basis," Murray told reporters when he announced Paddock’s promotion. "It was easy. I thought it was important just to get it done and get the right man. And I know we have the right man."

“Behind the bench, he is very intense," said forward Antoine Vermette, one of the players Paddock helped develop in Binghamton. "He's very involved, yelling, and he really cares for the team and the guys, and gets everyone going. … He's very straightforward and he knows what he's talking about.”

With the head coaching question answered, Murray’s next big move was solving his goaltending situation. Martin Gerber had been signed the previous summer to an expensive contract, but Ray Emery beat him out for the job and backstopped Ottawa to its first Stanley Cup Final, a five-game loss to Anaheim that took a little luster off an otherwise sterling season.

Emery, a restricted free agent, signed a three-year contract in late July, while he was rehabilitating from surgery to repair cartilage damage in his left wrist.

Gerber, who spent the summer hoping to be traded, instead was the Senators’ starting goalie opening night. He won that night, and five of the first six while Emery continued to heal. Emery finally made his season debut Oct. 20, but struggled. In all, Gerber won 12 of his first 13 starts as the Senators shot out to the East’s best record.

Everything was clicking early for the Senators. Their top line of Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley was explosive. Spezza had 20 assists in the season’s first two months, while Alfredsson had 17 goals and 32 points, and Heatley had 13 goals and 30 points.

The only questions surrounding the team then was could it match the 1976-77 Canadiens’ mark of an eight-loss season.

Those questions stopped abruptly during a six-game losing streak that carried into the beginning of December.

While the Sens straightened things somewhat with a six-game win streak in mid-December, problems were bubbling under the surface. Second-line center Mike Fisher was struggling badly, and nagging injuries sidelined Alfredsson, Heatley and Chris Neil.

The biggest lightning rod, though, was Emery. The club had silently suffered through what it considered the goalie’s poor practice habits and tardiness. That all changed after a pair of incidents just after Christmas.

Emery exploded at a Dec. 27 pre-game skate, punctuating a tantrum by throwing his stick into the stands. Two days later, Emery arrived five minutes before the start of practice, and Paddock told him, in the goalie’s words, “to beat it.” Teammates supported the coach’s move, with some pointed comments from Alfredsson, the team captain.

"If he was our No. 1 goalie right now and we lived and died by him, then it would be a different story and we would expect more from him at all times," Alfredsson told local reporters. "But Gerber is our goalie right now. Ray's mission right now is, if he wants to get back in there, he has got to show the coaches he wants to do it."

After meeting with Murray and teammates, Emery apologized privately and publicly, and showed he meant it by spending extra time on the ice with goalie coach Eli Wilson.

Outside of a practice fight with teammate Brian McGrattan in early January, Emery’s attitude improved, but the team’s play as a whole continued to sink. The team skidded into the All-Star break with losses in five of seven games, and things got no better when the players reconstituted after the break. While the rest of the team showed up on time for the first practice, on Long Island, Emery was late.

The poor play continued, and it ended up costing Paddock his job. A month after coaching the Eastern Conference All-Star team, Paddock was dismissed as coach on Feb. 27. Murray stepped behind the bench as the replacement.

"We feel directly responsible, as players, for the coach getting fired at this point of the season," said Spezza, who admitted owing much of his development to Paddock.

Murray’s return sparked the Senators, and they briefly re-took the Northeast Division lead after beating Montreal on March 13. But, the club hit the skids again down the stretch and limped into the postseason.

Now, the Senators hope that the bumpy road they have traversed is done and they can once again find the smooth path that led to last year’s appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.

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