|Senators centre Jason Spezza listens to a media question during the team's locker cleanout day at Scotiabank Place. The team heads off for the summer enthused about their future prospects (Ottawa Senators Hockey Club).
On the whole, they'd rather have been in Philadelphia.
But the Ottawa Senators filed out of Scotiabank Place one last time on Saturday afternoon, their season over for another year. Such was their fate after Thursday's tough 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarter-final series.
So instead of lining up for a second-round series against the Flyers that likely would have started today in the City of Brotherly Love, the Senators were left to ponder what might have been. But given that this was a season in which many were calling for this team to finish near the bottom of the league, it was also a time to take note of the brighter days that appear to be just around the corner.
"You still go through a time of being disappointed," Senators centre Jason Spezza said after joining his teammates in cleaning out their lockers for the summer. "We felt we had a really good chance (against the Rangers, the East's No. 1 seed). Some teams are going to have a lot of success going forward and that could have been us. It's a little bit tough to look back at this point, but we definitely made a lot of strides as a team and did some real good things."
Said general manager Bryan Murray: "We feel today like we still should be playing. We felt that this series was one of two equal teams for the most part and we didn't win. It's as simple as that. It's disappointing that we put ourselves in position to win it and it didn't happen."
They did it as a group that captain Daniel Alfredsson called one of the tightest-knit teams he'd ever been a part of over the course of 16 seasons in Ottawa.
"We were expected to do not too much at all," said Alfredsson, who will take the summer to decide whether he'll back in 2012-13. "Everybody brought something to the table at different times of the year ... We had some good chemistry within the team, there's no question. It was a lot of fun to be a part of this group."
For head coach Paul MacLean, his first year behind the Senators bench ended in bittersweet fashion. Much as the team succeeded well beyond his pre-season expectations, he was quick to suggest "wouldn't we all like to be in Philadelphia."
"The growth of our team was faster than we would have expected at the start, but that's a credit to the leadership group of our team and the quality of our players," he said. "The group as a whole really came together and worked real hard to be a good team and a good unit. We had some good growth and there's also some healthy distaste for not being in Philadelphia today, which I think is good going forward.
"We've got a real good foundation that we can build on (now). We know that the expectation level for our team has obviously increased with the success that we had. Now we have somewhere to start when we come back in September and we think it's pretty solid."
Indeed, it's true that this isn't a team that will be looked upon as a sad sack when it begins assembling for the 2012-13 campaign in the fall. Coming off an eighth-place finish in the East and the near-upset of the Rangers — and with a raft of prospects on the way to further boost the talent level on hand — there is no question more will be expected from this group, both internally and externally. But they're eager and ready for the test.
"Paul and his staff have really come in and made us a team and given us direction about what we have to do to get better," said Spezza. "We're under the understanding that the bar is going to be raised moving forward because of what we've just done. We've proven that we can be a good team and we go through the summer knowing we have to push ourselves because when we show up here in September, we're not going to be picked 15th (in the East) and we're not going to have low expectations.
"We've got to be ready to go and our expectations are going to be to try to win."
Alfredsson added it's a challenge the entire team should willingly embrace.
"We maybe overachieved this year over what people thought (about us), and next year the bar is set higher for everybody," he said. "And that's a fun challenge. We've earned the right to be more respected and (seen as) a better team, and we have a lot of prospects that are getting really close to coming in and taking a position on the team.
"You never know in sports, but we're going to set the bar high next year for our goals. It's a pretty exciting time for this organization."
Murray, who has orchestrated a massive turnaround in a little more than a year, certainly seconds that thought.
"In the playoffs, I saw a group of players that probably could compete with most any team in the league," he said. "That (shows) that our coaching staff did a lot, our players did a lot and there's a number of building blocks there now that allow us to be optimistic going forward.
"It'll be more of a challenge going forward. The expectations will be different and we know that. But certainly, based on where we were at the beginning of the year (a 1-5-0 start) to today ... as disappointing as it is today, we've achieved some of things we wanted to achieve."
Senators answer call to worlds
The 2012 IIHF World Hockey Championship begins next weekend in Helsinki and Stockholm and, with their NHL season now complete, several Senators-affiliated players have accepted offers to play for their homelands. Forward Milan Michalek, Ottawa's top goal scorer this season with 35, will suit up for the Czech Republic, while winger Kaspars Daugavins is set to join Latvia and centre Stephane Da Costa — who spent the majority of the season with the Binghamton Senators — has agreed to play for France. Co-host Sweden has added Senators prospect Jakob Silfverberg, the playoff and regular season MVP of the country's Elitserien, to its roster. Karlsson and Alfredsson are also mulling offers to join the Tre Kronor. "I haven't decided yet," said Karlsson, who has insurance concerns with his contract with the Senators about to expire. "It's a great honour and something that I want to do. If we can work around (the insurance issue), it's going to take a lot for me to say no."