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Off-season comes early for Sens

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
A record-breaking start, a bitterly disappointing finish… a few quick words to describe the Ottawa Senators’ 2007-08 season, one might suggest.

Less than 24 hours after the Pittsburgh Penguins ended their season prematurely with a first-round playoff sweep, the Senators returned to Scotiabank Place one last time to clear out their lockers and begin an off-season that will seem entirely too long.

This one, it was clear in the faces and the voices, figures to sting for awhile.

“It’s awfully early,” admitted Senators centre Jason Spezza of beginning the Senators’ earliest off-season since 1996. “We’re not used to packing up our season. We should be talking about the next game (today). Obviously, it’s pretty upsetting and disappointing.”

Nobody, to be sure, saw this kind of finish coming. The Senators suffered an opening-round sweep for the first time since 2001, their playoff life lasting a mere eight days. Not exactly what was expected by anyone a year after this team took its fans on a rollicking ride all the way to the first Stanley Cup final appearance in modern-franchise history.

When the Senators rocketed out to a 15-2-0 start this season, anything seemed possible. Signs of trouble began to show in December, though, with the bottom beginning to fall out in the weeks and months that followed a 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings – the eventual Presidents’ Trophy winners – on Jan. 12. The Senators were 29-10-4 at that point, riding high atop the Eastern Conference standings. But they went 14-21-4 the rest of the way.

Even general manager Bryan Murray’s late-season decision to fire head coach John Paddock and move back behind the bench couldn’t reverse the tide.

So what happened? It’s a question that still had players scratching their heads yesterday to find the right answer.

“A lot of things happened that made us a very average team,” said captain Daniel Alfredsson, who revealed after Wednesday’s season-ending loss that he played the final two games with a torn right knee ligament. “We just weren’t good enough when it counted. I think we got into a downward spiral that we couldn’t (stop).

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

Against the Penguins, the offence dried up, with the Senators scoring only five goals in four games. Turnovers and too many trips to the penalty box also plagued the team throughout the short series.

“Turning the puck over, that’s how you give games away,” said Senators defenceman Mike Commodore. “That’s what won Pittsburgh the series.”

Player after player talked about a team that somehow lost its way and went from being a cohesive unit at the season’s outset to a group that wasn’t anywhere near being on the same page by the end.

“I don’t think we played as a group,” said forward Dany Heatley. “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.”

Added Commodore: “The bottom line is, we just never got it together.”

As the struggles continued, it wore on the team’s confidence level.

“I think one (thing) is belief, to be honest with you,” said forward Cory Stillman, a February trade acquisition from the Carolina Hurricanes along with Commodore. “You’ve got to come in believing you’re going to win, knowing you’re going to win and if you do that, you might not win every night but the confidence will be there and the plays will be there.”

While Ray Emery became a lightning rod for the Senators’ ills – he twice showed up late for practice and was fined for the second incident – teammates stood behind their embattled goaltender once again today.

“We’re pros,” said Alfredsson. “I don’t think we can blame anything on one guy. We should be able to play anyway. It didn’t have a big impact on the whole season. It was more (about) the play on the ice.”

While change is inevitable in these circumstances, several players insisted a major makeover isn’t necessary before training camp next fall.

“I don’t think you can blow things up,” said Alfredsson. “There is a lot of potential (here). We underachieved as a team and that goes for all of us. You’re a pro athlete and you can’t just say ‘this is no fun, I’m going to quit.’ You try to be better.”

Said Spezza: “I don’t think there needs to be drastic changes. You can’t panic in situations like this. There will be changes, and any time you lose you expect changes … That’s why we put so much pressure on ourselves, because we know there’s so many consequences when you lose and losing teammates is one of the consequences.”

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