|It has been a dream season for Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, who intends to make the most out of a playoff opportunity that wasn't totally expected at the season's outset (Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).
faced the question more than once and never shied away from the challenge, not even for a moment.
"In camp, everybody was saying (to me) 'are you sure you want to stay here and start a rebuild?,'" the Ottawa Senators captain said in looking back upon the humbling beginnings to what has turned into a most enjoyable season for the veteran of 16 National Hockey League campaigns. "With a new coaching staff coming in ... we didn't know what to expect of ourselves.
"But we knew we were going to work hard to try to be as good as we could be."
Even during a rough 1-5-0 start in which the Senators were outscored 30-15 and twice allowed seven goals in one-sided losses, Alfredsson saw indications that brighter days awaited them all — and maybe sooner than everyone around the NHL thought.
"Even though we started the season putting ourselves in a big hole in the first six games, we still had some signs of being able to score goals and almost coming back (to win games)," he said. "It probably took those games to figure out the style we wanted to play and where we needed to improve the most. The main thing that was still there was we were a skating team.
"We were able to generate offence, even though maybe we don't have the high-end skill you'd expect on a team that has scored as many goals as we have (249, the fourth-most among the league's 16 playoff qualifiers). We've been able to create chances with our skating and our forechecking, and overcome that lack of skill."
The result has been a season that has put a serious jump back into Alfredsson's step. Not only is he getting a perhaps unexpected trip to the post-season in the twilight years of his exemplary career, the Senators captain feels the healthiest he's been in years. A nerve issue in his back that greatly affected his right leg scuttled the Swedish native's 2010-11 season, limiting him to a career-low 54 games. Surgery was eventually required, but Alfredsson had no idea how he'd respond to it or how effective he might be when a new season rolled around.
His answer started to come quickly. New head coach Paul MacLean put the Senators through a hard training camp, with a heavy emphasis on skating. When Alfredsson handled that with no issues, he knew his game was headed back in the right direction.
"It's been great," Alfredsson said of his 2011-12 season, during he scored 27 goals — the most he's recorded since 2007-08, the last time he hit the 40-goal plateau. "The way I felt last year and maybe even the year before ... when you're healthy, you realize how much it was hampering you and how limited I was. I'm extremely happy about how the surgery went and the rehab.
"The way I handled camp, with all the skating, I knew I was going to be able to skate and play at a pretty good level. That's what has been fun, being able to force turnovers and create chances off the forecheck, which is a big part of my game."
The season has been a joy on so many fronts for the Senators captain. On New Year's Eve, he recorded his 400th career goal in dramatic fashion — in overtime against the Calgary Flames, capping an Ottawa comeback from a 3-0 deficit. The NHL All-Star Weekend in Ottawa, in which he captained one of the team two teams, saw him showered with affection and adulation at every turn by Senators fans who still love to chant "Al-fie, Al-fie" at the top of their lungs.
Alfredsson truly likes the team he is bringing with him into the Stanley Cup playoffs, which begins tonight at Madison Square Garden in New York (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200), where Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarter-final series will be contested. It is an interesting mix of core veterans and youthful talent which is about to experience NHL playoff action for the first time.
"You know you have a group that's going to bring it," said Alfredsson. "It's not six or seven guys, it's everybody. That's why we have been able to overcome some of our shortcomings, maybe, because we do have guys stepping up at different times. We have everybody trying every night, whether we're making mistakes or not, and that's a good feeling to have.
"It's a lot easier for the coaches to overlook mistakes when you see guys are really trying to make up for it ... That's what this group is all about."
This is a group that Alfredsson is also confident will handle the playoff pressure well.
"It's still the same game," he said. "The big thing to be prepared for ... it's more the first period in any series or the second. The intensity just ramps up about 10 times (at the start) and then the game kind of settles itself. To be able to handle your emotions and feelings and push your energy in the right direction in that first period is extremely important, to make the right decisions without being too hesitant or too anxious.
"But we've got a really good group for that. Some of the guys were in the AHL playoffs last year and went all the way. The only difference (here) is there's more media and more expectations, but other than that, it's still the same game. When you do play playoff games, no matter where you are, you learn from that and the onlly thing that's bigger here are the crowds, the noise and the expectations. And I think we'll be able to handle that."Around the boards
The Senators took the season series between the teams 3-1-0, including two victories at MSG, where they've won five straight dating back to 2009 ... Long Island native Matt Gilroy
will be part of the Ottawa defence corps tonight, meaning Matt Carkner
will be a healthy scratch along with forwards Zenon Konopka
, Bobby Butler
and Rob Klinkhammer
... Five current Senators have been to the Stanley Cup final: Alfredsson, Jason Spezza
, Chris Phillips
and Chris Neil
, all with Ottawa in 2007, and defenceman Sergei Gonchar
, who's done it three times — twice with the Pittsburgh Penguins (2008, 2009) and once with the Washington Capitals (1998). The Pens won it all with Gonchar in '09. "They understand the rigours of the Stanley Cup playoffs and what tonight means," MacLean said of those veterans. "They're an important part of getting our team ready to play." ... Game 2 is Saturday at the Garden (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200), with the series shifting back to Scotiabank Place for Game 3 and 4 on Monday and Wednesday, respectively (both 7:30 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).