BOSTON -- When the clock stopped, with 0.1 seconds remaining in the third period, the Ottawa Senators didn't quite allow themselves to believe. They waited after the icing, as it took agonizing second after agonizing second, to set up the faceoff, to drop the puck, to hear the horn sound. It was only then, after regulation was truly over, after they had officially earned one point, that the smiles broke out on the bench.
They had clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After everything, all they had endured this season, the Senators would continue playing.
Ultimately, they had even more reason to celebrate, getting two points in a 2-1 shootout win against the Boston Bruins, a possible Eastern Conference First Round opponent, on Thursday at TD Garden.
Asked how it felt, Senators coach Guy Boucher could only chuckle.
"You want the calm guy?" he said. "Or you want the truth?"
This had been a momentous achievement for the Senators, given where they were expected to finish in the Eastern Conference, given everything they went through on the way from Game 1 to Game 80. For much of the season, the Senators had been without key members, whether it was forward Clarke MacArthur, dealing with post-concussion syndrome, or goaltender Craig Anderson, tending to his wife as she battled cancer. There have been injuries all season and, on Thursday, the Senators were forced to play without their best player, defenseman Erik Karlsson.
And still, they found a way. That's why, after the game, there was so much talk of pride, in themselves, in the team, in what they had been able to accomplish.
"It's a great moment," Boucher said. "I have to be honest here. When you look at what these players have lived through and what the organization had to go through this year, the adversity that the players had to battle through, even today, missing lots of key guys, I can't help but being so proud and impressed by this group."
The win happened fittingly, with the Senators limiting the Bruins to one goal, by Drew Stafford at 10:37 of the first period, and scoring one themselves, by Alexandre Burrows at 7:37 of the second. Ottawa kept a lid on Boston, holding the Bruins to three shots in the third period, en route to guaranteeing the overtime and the point that it needed so badly.
"It's just a really good feeling that we were able to accomplish what we set out to at the start of the year, with the adversity that we've gone through," defenseman Dion Phaneuf said. "A lot of ups, a lot of downs. We found a way to stick to it.
"Tonight was a game that was textbook the style that we've played all year. We've played a tight-checking game that we didn't give up a lot. We've played in a lot of tight games, and this feels really good to have the opportunity to compete in the playoffs. To do it with this group, the way that we've really worked, is a great feeling."
There are still concerns on the injury front: Players remain out, including Karlsson, who is unlikely to play on Saturday in the penultimate game of the Senators' season. Boucher said he was hopeful that his full team would be back by the time the playoffs start, believing that was possible.
"Maybe, maybe this year we're going to have one game with our full team on the ice," he said. "Still looking at that. I'd like to ask Santa, but it's pretty far away. I guess I'm going to have to light some candles."
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There is still time. The playoffs are a week away. In the meantime, there is positioning to fight for and home ice to earn. For now, with or without a full complement of players, Boucher and the Senators were happy just to honor what they had accomplished.
That part was important.
"You start the year and nobody expects us to be where we are, and then all of a sudden you see all these things happen to us," Boucher said. "When one adversity's over, the next one's there. You go, 'when is this going to stop?' The way these players have stuck together and the way they supported each other off ice and on ice and during games. We were missing so many players and so many guys injured, I think that's what it was. It wasn't just relief, it was a major caring about each other in that room.
"That's why I say there's a soul to this group."
After it was all over, there were cheers and stick taps and music spilling out of the visitor's dressing room in TD Garden. There was celebration. It was worth the wait, through all 80 games, through even that 0.1 second in the third period, through the overtime and shootout that followed.
"I don't think we ever talked about it before the final buzzer, even when there was 0.1 second left with the faceoff," Burrows said. "We told the ref, 'Just run it down.' Let's make sure. But we'll take the result. We're happy. We're finally relieved."