OTTAWA - Daniel Alfredsson was just a rookie the last time the Ottawa Senators missed the playoffs. With the exception of the lockout year, longtime teammate Chris Phillips has never endured a spring without a post-season game to look forward to.
As a result, the concept of simply playing out the regular-season stretch is a foreign one to both NHL veterans. However, it's the reality they have to accept following a mostly forgettable season for the Senators.
"Not being involved in the races and the standings and all that and just looking from the outside, I don't know how to describe other than it's just a weird feeling right now," Phillips said Friday following the team's practice at Scotiabank Place, where Ottawa is preparing to face the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night in a game that holds no real meaning for the Senators.
That became official during Ottawa's recently completed six-game road trip, which wrapped up Thursday night in Boston with a 2-1 loss to the Bruins. The defeat dropped the Senators' mark on the road swing to 2-4-0 and 33-33-10 overall for the season.
Although they were always going to be a longshot to make it, at least the slim chance of qualifying had become something for fans and the team to cling to over the past month in a frustrating year.
With five games left, that's no longer the case.
For the record, it was a defeat to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday that mathematically eliminated them from playoff contention for the first time since the 1995-96 campaign.
"We knew the situation and how daunting a task it was to get in for us," the 36-year-old Alfredsson, the team's captain and star right-winger, said Friday. "It was just a good feeling to put ourselves in a position where people could start talking or even writing about it.
"My attitude was, if we could keep it going, great. We had to give it everything we had and if we don't (make it), we knew we gave it everything we had and pushed as hard as we could."
It'll be the first time in his 11 seasons that Phillips won't be in the playoffs, and it's a similar story for any of Ottawa's longer-serving playoffs who will be left with an empty feeling following their regular-season finale at Toronto on April 11.
"Usually at this time of year, you're used to watching the standings real close and watching games," said centre Jason Spezza, who will miss out for the first time in his six seasons. "It's going to be a different feeling. It's always tough when you lose (out) to watch the hockey games and this year's going to be even tougher not being in the playoffs."
The Senators have five games remaining and the focus now will be on finishing the season on a high note.
Since new coach Cory Clouston took over, Ottawa has shown more potential than it did under his predecessor, Craig Hartsburg.
Hartsburg was fired Feb. 2 with the team at 17-24-7. Since then, the Senators have gone a more respectable 16-9-3 and Clouston would like to see the improvement continue over the remainder of the schedule.
"It'll be a challenge," he said. "Because this club's been in the playoffs so many years in a row, it will be a challenge to keep our focus and continue to play hard and show our character. We want to continue to build momentum for the off-season and next year."
The Senators had already began looking toward next season this week by announcing their pursuit of free-agent centre Tyler Bozak from the University of Denver.
They were on a short-list of five teams bidding for the 23-year-old Regina native's services, but Bozak opted to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday instead.
Finding motivation won't be that tough among the Senators' currently lineup, though. There is job security to play for, as well as pride and a desire to go out on a winning note.
"It's a better atmosphere when you're winning games," Spezza said. "We're going to be here for the next nine days regardless, so you might as well win games and feel good about yourself and build towards next season than to lose games and guys start getting frustrated again."
Spezza is among the Senators who could also earn an invitation to the upcoming IIHF World Hockey Championship in Switzerland. He figures to be among those being considered to play for Canada along with left-winger Dany Heatley and possibly Phillips on defence and centre Mike Fisher.
All four players indicated Friday they'd suit up if asked by Hockey Canada.
"I love playing in that tournament," said Heatley, who played on Canada's top line at last year's worlds. "I really enjoy playing with different guys and going over and playing internationally. I'd love to go again."