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Senators carrying sense of optimism into off-season

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Senators centre Jason Spezza meets with the media today at Scotiabank Place as the team's players cleared out their lockers for the season. They're heading into the summer on a positive strong after a strong finish to the season, but are anything but satisfied about missing the playoffs for the second time in three years (Ottawa Senators Hockey Club).
For the most part, one might suggest, it's the expected sentiment whenever a hockey season ends much too soon.


But in the Ottawa Senators' case, there is plenty of reason to cast eyes and thoughts toward the next time they'll gather together as a group. Training camp can't come soon enough, indeed, for a team that played its best hockey of the season down the stretch.

Unfortunately for the Senators, their 15-10-2 finish didn't do nearly enough to overcome the damage done before then and, for the second time in three seasons, they'll be spectators during the Stanley Cup playoffs. But general manager Bryan Murray, for one, couldn't help but wonder out loud about what might have been.

"The younger guys just went out and played," Murray said about the players who filled the void after he dealt away six veterans before the National Hockey League trade deadline, signalling a changing of the guard in the Ottawa dressing room. "With less pressure, obviously, but they went out and played. Our team was better at the end than it was at the midpoint.

"Because of our skating ability, probably, we became a little more aggressive on the forecheck and we looked like a real contending team. If we went into the playoffs today, with the way we were playing at the end ... it's so close now in our league that we'd probably be okay. We'd probably contend pretty well in the first round. But we're not there yet because of what happened earlier on."

Mostly, it was a 1-12-3 stretch from January into early February that essentially doomed the Senators' post-season hopes. But the Feb. 18 trade for goaltender Craig Anderson a steadying influence between the pipes from the day he arrived — and the play of Binghamton callups such as Bobby Butler, Colin Greening and Erik Condra dramatically changed the dynamic of the team down the stretch.

Combine that with a bumper crop of picks, including a potential top-five selection, in the upcoming 2011 NHL Entry Draft and the impending arrival of top blue-line prospects David Rundblad and Jared Cowen, and the Senators have much to look forward to as they begin building toward a brighter future.

"It's pretty promising," said veteran forward Chris Neil. "The young guys have come in, stepped up their game and brought a lot of energy into the dressing room. You can’t say enough about that. Colin Greening, Condra, Bobby Butler ... guys like that stepped in and filled in well.

"Hopefully, next year, when we come into camp, everyone’s in great shape. We have something to prove. We want to put this year behind us ... there’s only one direction to go and that’s forward."

"I’m very positive about how the season ended, the way the young guys came in and played, and I think that it points in the right direction. That being said, we still have to be better at the start of next year ... I don’t think we’re satisfied with how the year went, just because we had a good finish here and showed some signs of going in the right direction. It’s going to be important summer for myself and for everybody, so that (we) can come back better. We really have to get off to better start and carry it through. It’s a tough league to win in every night and you don’t want to put yourself behind the eight-ball. If you leave things to too late in the year, it becomes tough to make the playoffs." - Jason Spezza
Added defenceman Chris Phillips: "The guys that stepped in did a great job. It didn’t hurt that a lot of them were trying to show what they’re capable of doing and trying to get a spot on this team next year. They came in, we were able to put some wins together and it changed the whole attitude of the team. Even in a losing year and missing the playoffs, the last month of hockey and coming to the rink was a lot of fun. We’d love to pick up next year where we left off."

They'll do so with a new coaching staff behind the bench, in the wake of the dismissal of Cory Clouston, Brad Lauer and Greg Carvel on Saturday night. Murray has already taken some calls from prospective coaches but isn't in a rush to fill the void, though he'd like to take care of that business before the draft.

"There’s some time here to talk to people, look around and see what happens," he said. "There will be other candidates that will become available. I probably will have it done before the draft, but we’re going to take our time here."

The late-season surge also showed the depth of the organization has improved greatly. Not only did the Sens finish with a flourish, the Binghamton Senators were also able to qualify for the American Hockey League playoffs for the first time since 2005. They'll open a best-of-seven first round series against the Manchester Monarchs on Thursday night in New Hampshire.

"We showed late (in the season) that we have some kids coming," said Murray. "You have to have depth and at times, in particular last year and early this year, we didn't feel we were there. Now we know we're in much better position. That's just young people growing up and getting some experience, and that should make us (better). When you have an injury, you have a fill guy that can contribute and that's key."

While the Senators head into the off-season in a better frame of mind, centre Jason Spezza made it clear this is a group that thirsts for much more.

"I’m very positive about how the season ended, the way the young guys came in and played, and I think that it points in the right direction," said Spezza, whose importance to the team grew to new heights this season. "That being said, we still have to be better at the start of next year to get to that. I don’t think we’re satisfied with how the year went, just because we had a good finish here and showed some signs of going in the right direction.

"It’s going to be important summer for myself and for everybody, so that (we) can come back better. We really have to get off to better start and carry it through. It’s a tough league to win in every night and you don’t want to put yourself behind the eight-ball. If you leave things to too late in the year, it becomes tough to make the playoffs."


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