OTTAWA (CP) - In the wake of a crushing second-round elimination to the Buffalo Sabres last season, the Ottawa Senators wished they could start that series over.
Fast forward 12 months later and the Senators are back in the same spot after a five-game win in the first round. Except this year's edition believes it's better suited for a run.
"You can see the difference in this hockey club from the previous hockey clubs that I've been with," said Senators GM John Muckler. "This hockey club seems to have something special. The leadership is great, they all get along together, they compete every night, they have the skill level and the physical strength - so we'll see where that takes us."
The difference is the commitment to team defence. The Sabres capitalized on Ottawa's defensive lapses in last year's second-round series and the Senators spent all of this season trying to tighten up. They have. Just ask Sidney Crosby and the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins, who were largely held in check by a suffocating Senators system. Ottawa has allowed the second-fewest goals on average per game (1.80) among Eastern Conference playoff teams.
"I think the way in which we won the series had a lot to do with how dedicated we were to playing that system," said Senators goaltender Ray Emery. "During the year some guys had off nights and different things happened where you get away from that system. All but one period in this series we really limited their chances and got chances of our own from the way were playing.
"I think that's why the series was lopsided like it was."
And it's why the comparisons to last year's five-game win in the first round over Tampa don't really matter. The Senators believe they're in much better shape 12 months later.
"I think the good thing about it now is that the guys have seen when they play hard and play disciplined what they can achieve," Senators head coach Bryan Murray said Friday. "It's hard to remember back totally, but I think they feel much better about it right now than maybe we did a year ago."
It hasn't come easily. Credit the veteran coach Murray for doggedly trying to convince his players, especially his high-end guys like Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley, that playing better defensively would lead to better things.
"We've talked so much and complained so much about it," said Murray. "We showed them tape and embarrassed a couple of guys in private meetings. I think the guys learned from that and learned moreso that being a team they've got a chance to be good here and I think they bought in based on that."
The evolution of Spezza, the team's No. 1 centre with hands smooth as velvet, has been noticeable. He was on the ice for the last minute of play in Tuesday night's 2-1 win in Game 4, something that would have never happened before.
"I'm more proud of that than any goal I'll score," Spezza told reporters that night in Pittsburgh. "Three years ago, I never would have been put out on the ice like that."
Spezza and his teammates had Friday off and will also stay away from the rink on Saturday. Then Murray will re-assemble the team for a practice Sunday. The Senators had a week off last year between rounds and came out flat in a Game 1 loss to Buffalo.
"That's the concern you always have," said Murray. "You can practise hard, you can talk and have meetings and that. But a lot of it has to do with the players. A lot of it has to do with the body starting to heal up, the bruising is gone, and that first game is scary at times.
"What we're doing this year is they'll get today and tomorrow off and when we bring them back Sunday we'll get back into it pretty hard the first couple of days in particular. I'm hoping that overrides any negative thing time may allow."
On the flip side, the short opening series bodes well for a team trying to make a long run.
"Without a doubt, injuries and fatigue become a big factor if you're going to go a distance and I think there's some real benefit to that (starting with a short series)," said Murray.
Defenceman Anton Volchenkov can use the time off. A key ingredient in limiting Crosby's chances in the series, the Russian blue-liner got hurt during Game 5 although he did return.
"He kind of caught his arm on the wall," said Murray. "And even when he came back to play a shift, I thought that he was a little tender out there, he played with one hand. But talking to the trainers, I certainly think a couple of days off will make a huge difference and he'll be OK."