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Promising season went south for Senators

by Dan Rosen

The Ottawa Senators’ tumultuous season ended with a first round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Watch Penguins-Senators highlights
Just four months after losing in the Stanley Cup Final, the Ottawa Senators looked poised for another run at the most famous trophy in all of sports.

The defending Eastern Conference champions started the season with 15 wins in their first 17 games, mostly with their expected backup goalie in net. After beating the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 12, the Senators were 19 games over .500, simply soaring.

But a season that started with so much promise ended with so many questions.

Ottawa was ticketed for the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the first half of the season, but wound up making the playoffs as the seventh seed, just two points ahead of the ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes. They each had 43 wins.

The Senators’ tumultuous second half cost first-year coach John Paddock his job on Feb. 27. General Manager Bryan Murray, who won 100 games as the team’s coach from 2004-07, returned to the bench, but didn’t fare much better as he went 7-10-2 over the final 19 games.

The Senators were swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who went on to win the Eastern Conference, needing only 14 games to reach the Stanley Cup Final.

“A lot of things happened that made us a very average team,” Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson told the team’s Web site. “We just weren’t good enough when it counted. I think we got into a downward spiral that we couldn’t (get out of).”

Injuries played a major factor in the Senators’ second-half problems. In fact, after the Penguins were finished with Ottawa, Alfredsson revealed he played the final two games of the series with a torn knee ligament after missing the first two games of the series thanks to a high check from Toronto forward Mark Bell on April 3.

Alfredsson was the leading scorer in the NHL by the All-Star break, but finished ninth due to his injury problems.

Checking-line center Mike Fisher also suffered a knee injury at the end of the season, and leading scorer Jason Spezza (92 points) was hobbled at times, too. Dany Heatley wound up missing time from mid-January until early February, which was right about the time the Senators started veering off track.

No one, though, wanted to blame injuries for the team’s second half swoon.

“I don’t think we played as a group,” Heatley said. “You just look at our team, why we weren’t successful. … We were too disjointed out there. We weren’t five guys playing together. When that happens, it’s never a good thing.”

One of the problems the Sens faced was a goaltending issue. Ray Emery, who backstopped Ottawa to the Stanley Cup Final last year, was supposed to be the No. 1 guy again this season. But Martin Gerber played well in the beginning of the season when Emery was still recovering from offseason wrist surgery.

When Emery finally returned, he struggled and wound up causing problems by showing up late to practice twice. The second incident resulted in a fine. He also threw a tantrum on the ice during a workout in late December. Emery apologized for his actions and his attitude improved, but he was never the same goalie this season as he was during last year’s playoff run. He was waived by the Sens prior to the Entry Draft.

The Senators still wound up with 261 goals, second most in the League and just one behind the Montreal Canadiens. Their defense sagged, however, as they allowed four or more goals in 18 of their final 44 games from Jan. 1 until the end of the season. They went 18-22-4 during that stretch.

In the playoffs, the offense hit a wall, too. Pittsburgh limited the Senators to just five goals in the four games.

“We were really good early on and then all of a sudden, our defense … we couldn’t stop the puck from going into our own net,” Alfredsson said. “We were letting in 3-4 goals a game, and our special teams weren’t very good.”

The Senators, though, began to turn the page on June 13 when Murray announced that Craig Hartsburg would take over as the team’s coach. Hartsburg, who has five years of NHL head-coaching experience, gained international acclaim by leading Team Canada to back-to-back gold medals in the World Junior Championships. He’s known as a disciplinarian who stresses work ethic, and many pundits believe that’s exactly the type of coach the Senators need at this juncture.

“I know it’s a great challenge and I can’t wait because I love challenges,” Hartsburg said at his introductory press conference. “The sooner this thing gets started the better.”

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