The Ottawa Senators took a big step last season after years of falling short of expectations. This year, however, anything less than winning the Stanley Cup would be yet another disappointment.
A season after the franchise captured its first Eastern Conference title, new coach John Paddock hopes to take the Senators one step further as they open the season with a home-and-home series against the rival Toronto Maple Leafs, starting at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night.
One of the league's most talented teams for close to a decade, the Senators finally broke through last season and made their first Stanley Cup finals appearance. Although it managed only one win against champion Anaheim, Ottawa proved it is a legitimate contender for hockey's ultimate prize.
"The little taste we got of going to the final last year, that's our main goal again," star right wing Dany Heatley said. "We're hungry, we're skating well and everyone's excited to get going again."
The Senators racked up 105 points last season, their fourth straight season with at least 100. They had little trouble disposing of Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Presidents' Trophy-winning Buffalo in the first three rounds of the playoffs before the Ducks ended their run in five games.
Ottawa reached the postseason for the 10th straight year, but had gone as far as the conference finals only once before, in 2006-07.
Despite that success, the Senators begin this season with a new coach and a new general manager. Paddock, a longtime assistant, was named coach after predecessor Bryan Murray replaced John Muckler as GM.
While his team is loaded with talent, Paddock faces very high expectations in his first head coaching job since 1994-95 with the Winnipeg Jets.
"That's the challenge I want," Paddock said.
Few teams can match the Senators up front, with Ottawa boasting the trio of Heatley, Jason Spezza and captain Daniel Alfredsson. They combined to score 113 of the team's 288 goals last season before tying for the league playoff lead with 22 points apiece.
Heatley, an unrestricted free agent after this season, became the first player to record back-to-back 50-goal seasons since Pavel Bure in 1999-2000 and 2000-01.
One area of concern for the Senators is the health of No. 1 goaltender Ray Emery, who will miss the opener following offseason wrist surgery. Martin Gerber, who will start in his place, is 3-3-0 with a 3.34 goals-against average lifetime against Toronto.
"It is what it is. I just have to go out there and do my best and try to make the team better," Gerber said.
The Senators have basically the same roster as last season, with a few minor exceptions. Center Mike Comrie and defenseman Tom Preissing left via free agency while left wing Peter Schaefer was traded to Boston for right wing Shean Donovan.
After missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season, the Maple Leafs were busy in the offseason, signing 40-goal scorer Jason Blake to a five-year contract and trading for goaltender Vesa Toskala.
Although Andrew Raycroft matched a franchise record with 37 wins, his 2.99 GAA ranked 32nd in the league. The Leafs hope Toskala, a backup in San Jose the past four seasons, can help them avoid missing the playoffs in three straight seasons for the first time since 1925-28.
Staying healthy would also go a long way toward Toronto returning to the playoffs. Last season, forwards Kyle Wellwood, Darcy Tucker and Nik Antropov and defensemen Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina missed significant time with injuries.
The Leafs play eight of their first 10 games at home, where they were 12-15-5 last season before finishing with nine straight wins there to match a franchise record.
The Senators went 5-1-2 against the Maple Leafs last season, including 3-0-1 at Air Canada Centre. Ottawa has dominated the regular season series of late, going 12-2-2 since the start of the 2005-06 season.