|Chris Kelly and the Senators bring a more confident attitude into the Stanley Cup playoffs this season. Game 1 of their first-round series against the Penguins goes tonight at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images).
For the longest time, it was as automatic as the changing of seasons.
Spring arrives, the snow disappears and hope begins anew for another run at the Stanley Cup for the Ottawa Senators and their fans. Going back to that giddy first try at the National Hockey League’s post-season tournament in 1996-97, it was simply as it should be.
Nobody in the nation’s capital, it seemed, could remember it being any other way.
Until last year, that is. The playoffs arrived in 2009 but for the first time in a dozen years, the Senators weren’t invited to the party. Didn’t matter that the team was playing its best hockey of the season just as the regular schedule drew to a close — precisely the timing every team wants to find as April begins to bloom.
But in the Senators’ case, it wasn’t enough to repair the damage of a sorry start that couldn’t be overcome, even after head coach Cory Clouston took the reins in early February and breathed new life into the team.
Instead, the Senators had their longest off-season in years to think about what might have been, had they found their game just a little bit sooner. And every time that thought came to mind, the hurt hit home just a little deeper.
“It’s just that you’re not playing in the playoffs and it stings,” said veteran defenceman Chris Phillips
, who watched the post-season action from the sidelines for the first time in his career. “It’s not a good feeling not to be there and that’s what we get paid to do. We get paid to win and when you don’t do that, it’s disappointing.
“There are high expectations we put on ourselves. We don’t have to go outside this dressing room to look for them. But we finished off on a positive note last year and it helped coming into this year and we’ve carried that over.”
Indeed they have. From the ashes of 2008-09’s disappointment came the burning desire to make sure it didn’t happen again. And the positive ending to last season — the Senators went 19-11-4 after Clouston replaced the fired Craig Hartsburg — offered the perfect springboard for this season of redemption.
“It’s a different feeling and it’s not a feeling you like,” Senators centre Jason Spezza
said about missing the playoffs a year ago. “It gives you a long summer and a sense of not accomplishing much. It was important to us to get back to the playoffs.
“Every year, you’re motivated going in (to the season) and you draw from different motivating factors. Last fall, for us, it was not making the playoffs.”
"It’s just that you’re not playing in the playoffs and it stings. It’s not a good feeling not to be there and that’s what we get paid to do. We get paid to win and when you don’t do that, it’s disappointing. There are high expectations we put on ourselves. We don’t have to go outside this dressing room to look for them. But we finished off on a positive note last year and it helped coming into this year and we’ve carried that over." - Chris Phillips
Added forward Ryan Shannon: “Entering the summer with optimism about what’s going to happen… guys get excited and they prepare better. That probably led to our better start (this season).”
Although Clouston prefers to push the credit away from himself — “this has nothing to do with me, it’s about the players,” he said in the midst of the Senators’ franchise-record 11-game winning streak in January —the word “structure” is bandied about often in the Ottawa dressing room. As in the more aggressive system Clouston installed that sparked the turnaround in the Senators’ fortunes.
“He came in when we were really a disorganized team,” said captain Daniel Alfredsson
. “He brought some accountability and, at the same time, a system that was maybe a little more aggressive than we were playing and it gave us more energy. We (improved) from being a team that tried to play well defensively and wasn’t very good defensively, and we didn’t generate any offence at all.
“Now, we’re a pretty aggressive team in terms of forechecking when we don’t have the puck. And he’s been real consistent with what he wants to do. You can tell that everybody knows where to be and in what position. When we break down, we know it’s just someone making a mistake or just being in the wrong place, fatigue, or whatever. We can correct it pretty quick.”
“We felt confident with the way we were playing at the end of (last) year and I think that carried over to this year,” said Spezza. “Now we’re reaping the benefits of it.”
With that solid foundation in place coming into this season, the Senators had a base from which to build. Sure, there were a few new faces to integrate into the mix, but with everyone collectively buying into the Clouston way right from training camp, the parts began to jell as one soon enough.
“We’ve just come together as a team,” said centre Mike Fisher. “We might not have as much skill as we had on some (earlier) teams, but I think the way we’ve played together as a team… that’s why we’ve been successful.”
Said Phillips: “Every day it’s been hammered into us what (Clouston) expects us to do, and I think that makes it easier for the guys to go out and play. They’re not thinking as much, they just react, and when you do that, you’re way ahead of the game.
“Everyone’s bought into that and just having that unity on the ice, knowing where guys are going to be and what they expect of each other, is a great foundation to have. You put the talent we have on this team on top of that and that’s a big difference.”
All of that builds confidence, as well, that the right final result can always be achieved. And that no matter who they line up against in the post-season, the Senators will go into the series thinking they can be the victors in the end.
“The general attitude toward every game (has changed),” said centre Chris Kelly. “Last year, we went into every game hoping to win. This year, I think we have that confidence that we will win. You’re not going to win every game — no team does — but as long as you have the opportunity to win each and every night, that’s all you can ask for.
“Anything’s possible and I think that’s the mentality that we have.”
As any student of the game of hockey will tell you, there are plenty of stories in the game’s lore about teams that went a long way on the backs of the sheer belief that a collective effort can win the day. And this is indeed a Senators team that will always tell you that it lives and dies as one.
"The general attitude toward every game (has changed. Last year, we went into every game hoping to win. This year, I think we have that confidence that we will win. You’re not going to win every game — no team does — but as long as you have the opportunity to win each and every night, that’s all you can ask for. Anything’s possible and I think that’s the mentality that we have." - Chris Kelly
“It’s a team that really cares about every game,” said goaltender Brian Elliott. “When you’re out there playing like every game is your last game, it’s pretty fun."
There is a nothing like a little success, too, to keep fuelling that drive to the finish line.
“I’ve said it to the guys before — this team is good enough to beat any other one in the league,” said veteran forward Alex Kovalev, the Senators’ key free-agent signing last summer. “It’s up to us to really believe in that.
“It’s as simple as that. You just have to believe.”
That feeling never wavered, even when a wave of injuries that crippled several of Ottawa’s top stars in January threatened to crush its season. But after persevering through a five-game losing streak, the Senators reeled off 11 straight victories to pave the road back to the playoffs.
"I don’t think you show your character when times are good," said Clouston at the time. "You show your character when you do have injuries or when you’re struggling. It’s easy when things are going well to say you’ve got character. You truly see it when times are tough, and this organization has gone through some tough times over the last year.
“But the way we’ve responded, I’ve been very pleased and very happy and proud of the guys."
And now a return to the playoffs is their just reward.