TORONTO - If missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 years wasn't bad enough, the Ottawa Senators ended their disappointing season by losing 5-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
To top it off, goalie Martin Gerber, cast aside by the Senators earlier this season, was instrumental in helping the Leafs beat his former team.
It was like rubbing salt in an open wound.
It has to be galling to avid Senators fans, who won't get any home playoff dates for the first time since 1996, that their team slipped so far that it wound up nearly even with the lowly Leafs, who will miss having a post-season skate for the fourth consecutive season.
"It's tough," said Jason Spezza. "I've never really played a string of games without having playoffs around the corner."
Ottawa finished 11th in the NHL's Eastern Conference with 83 points, while Toronto wound up 12th with 81. With the talent they've got on paper, the Senators, who were seventh in the East last season, ending up with just two points more than the Leafs has to make them one of the biggest busts in the league this season.
It went wrong from the start and led to the firing of head coach Craig Hartsburg in early February.
"The start of the season was really negative," said Spezza. "We really got down on ourselves.
"We gained some confidence towards the end, relaxed, and started playing again."
Ottawa went 19-11-4 after Cory Clouston replaced Hartsburg on Feb. 3.
"We played well the last 30-odd games," said Spezza. "You wanted to leave on a winning note but we still had a productive last-third of the season.
"We played real good against teams that made the playoffs the last part of the season. We won a lot more games than we did earlier in the season. It's something to build off of but we know we still have a lot of work to do to be an elite team like we were before."
Ottawa's season ended with 11 fewer points than amassed in 2007-2008. When the Senators were swept out of the playoffs by Pittsburgh in the first round last spring, it was an omen of worse things to come.
Now that's history.
"If we really struggled down the stretch, maybe we'd really be questioning ourselves," said Spezza. "But we're going to be ready to go next season.
"If there are changes, there are changes. We can't control that. We feel we're a better team than our record shows."
Lack of offence was a big factor: the Senators scored 217 goals this season after potting 261 last year. Goals against went down, 237 this season as opposed to 247 last year.
To a man, the players spoke of the resurgence of the last two months as a reason to stay positive during the summer.
"We got things turned around and became a team," said Mike Fisher.
With Clouston in charge from the start of training camp in the autumn, things should be looking up, said Chris Neil, who may have played his last game with Ottawa.
"When he came in, we did what we wanted to do except make the playoffs," said Neil, an unrestricted free agent July 1. "Down the stretch we put a string of games together and gave ourselves a chance until the latter part of the season.
"We've got some good character guys and a lot of heart. We've just got to build on the latter part of the season we've had and keep things going forward. Hopefully, I can be part of it next (season)."
Ottawa outshot Toronto 39-30.
"Any time you lose it's disappointing but, overall, I'm not disappointed in this group," Clouston said of his closing-night assessment of the last two months.
Dany Heatley didn't get a goal Saturday and ended up with 39, failing to hit 40 for a fourth consecutive year. He had an open side of net to shoot at in the last minute but banged the puck off the side of the cage.
It's the first time since 1992 that Ontario's NHL arenas will be dark in the playoffs.
Toronto earned nine points and Ottawa five in the six meetings this season.
The Senators sold out Scotiabank Place 19 times this season compared to 38 last season. Average attendance of 19,081 was good though, considering the arena capacity is 19,153.