OTTAWA - When the Senators gather one last time Monday morning to clear out the dressing room, they'll carry more than just their sticks and equipment into the summer months.
"There's a lot of good things that happened this year in the team and it's definitely a step in the right direction for us compared to the last two years," Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson said after the Senators' season came to an end Saturday night with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Senators were bounced out of the playoffs on home ice in a heart-breaking fashion - squandering a 3-0 lead in Game 6 and losing in overtime.
However, given that Ottawa was facing the reigning Stanley Cup champions and had already staved off elimination with a dramatic triple-overtime triumph in Pittsburgh a game earlier, they'll still take more good than bad out of the way the Eastern Conference quarter-final played out.
The Senators' playoff character annually comes into question, save for last year when there were no playoffs to speak of after Ottawa missed out, but not this time around.
The Senators, not the most star-studded team to begin with, played the series minus couple of their top forwards in Milan Michalek and Alex Kovalev (knee injuries) and a top blue-liner in Filip Kuba (back injury), but still managed to throw a scare into the Penguins.
"We gave everything we had," defenceman Chris Phillips said. "In terms of effort and try, you couldn't ask for more."
After a regular season interrupted by injuries and poor performances that cost him the starting job to Brian Elliott, goaltender Pascal Leclaire at least redeemed himself somewhat with a franchise-record 56-save performance in Game 5 and another respectable showing in Game 6, although questions over either netminder's ability still remain.
Newcomers Matt Cullen and Andy Sutton enhanced their reputations and mainstay Anton Volchenkov, all of whom are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents this summer, restored some of his, which means they'll likely fare better at the negotiating table - if not in Ottawa, then elsewhere.
Volchenkov didn't have the best regular season, but he re-emerged as a strong presence in his own end, blocking a league-high 32 shots in the series, including 11 in Game 5 where the Senators managed a whopping 46 blocks as a team. Montreal's Hal Gill and Philadelphia's Chris Pronger, are second with 20.
If Volchenkov opts to leave Ottawa, Sutton could be a ready-made replacement after arriving in a late-season trade from the New York Islanders.
The six-foot-six, 245-pound Sutton may not be among the most mobile of defenders, but he gave the Senators some much-needed size and a nasty streak who can hit and block shots much like Volchenkov can.
The versatile Cullen, acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes, excelled in the post-season with three goals and five assists while playing in all situations.
Danish rookie Peter Regin has a lot of new fans in Ottawa after scoring three times and looking dangerous all series.
Then there was Alfredsson, who had two goals and six assists to tie Cullen for the team lead in points despite playing with a torn stomach muscle suffered late in the season.
The 37-year-old was feted after becoming the first player in franchise history to reach the 1,000-game mark for his career earlier this month, and further cemented his status as its best and most-influential player.
"What can you say?" asked coach Cory Clouston. "He's our leader, he's a warrior and he steps it up and plays through pain. He does a lot of good things, both on and off the ice. He leads by example."
Even usual whipping boy Jason Spezza had his moments, although he took heat for helping Sidney Crosby make the highlight reel to set up the Penguins' winning goal in Game 2, as well as a bad giveaway that contributed to a Game 4 loss.
But after a couple of seasons filled with media reports of dressing-room unrest, the Senators looked like a much more cohesive bunch.
"We've got a lot of character, we don't quit, we battled right to the end," Clouston said. "The guys that played, played hard and stepped it up and didn't quit."
Of course, a first-round loss can hardly be considered successful and the gulf in talent between the Penguins and the Senators was at times obvious from long stretches where Pittsburgh controlled play.
Ottawa doesn't have top-end talent like Crosby or Evgeni Malkin or the depth that sees the Penguins have Selke Trophy finalist Jordan Staal as a third centre.
As good as the Senators' third line of Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu and Chris Neil was, Pittsburgh has lesser-lights such as Game 6 hero Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin and Max Talbot who came through with big plays.
"They're a savvy team, they've been around, they know it's not over 'til it's over," Alfredsson said.
Ottawa rookie blue-liner Erik Karlsson struggled in his own end, so in that respect, the series serves as a learning tool.
And strangely, with a 26-11-4 record on home ice and an 18-21-2 mark on the road during the regular season, the Senators managed to win two of three at Mellon Arena while dropping all three meetings at Scotiabank Place, so that inability to win at home when it mattered proved costly.
"We knew we were kind of over-anxious in the home games," Alfredsson said.
Around Ottawa, Saturday's loss was billed as heart breaking and crushing, but, realistically, they were always underdogs against the Penguins, despite finishing only seven points behind them in the regular season.
"You know in the league today just how hard it is to make the playoffs," he said. "I hadn't been reflecting much on my career at all up to this point, but then the 1,000-game ceremony, you start thinking more. Going into this playoffs, who knows if you're going to be back in the playoffs again?"
The good part for the Senators, however, is that like the rest of the NHL's 29 other teams, they'll return in the fall with hope restored.