Friday, June 22, 2007

"Oh Bryan, why'd you pick me?"

In the first move of newly-instated General Manager Bryan Murray's tenure, the Ottawa Senators drafted University of Minnesota centre Jim O'Brien with the 29th overall pick in Friday night's first round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft in Columbus. The youngest player in the NCAA during the 06-07 season, O'Brien saw limited ice time with a deep hockey club, playing on the fourth line and receiving no time with the man advantage, though he did factor in with the special teams as a penalty killer.

O'Brien recorded 6 goals and 12 points in 36 games in his debut season with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, one of the most reputed clubs in the NCAA. He was ranked as a second round pick by most scouting sources; only The Hockey News considered him a first round prospect, ranking him at 25. He is expected to be a "project" in the eyes of the Senators organisation, and will certainly not be rushed to the professional level. It probably wouldn't be surprising to see him play out his entire university career before transferring to the Senators' AHL affiliate. O'Brien was drafted as a centreman, but played defense as a youngster and is considered by some to be more adept at the latter position. It is not known whether the Senators have any expectation for what position he will play, or, if like current Senators Renaissance man Christoph Schubert, he will adapt to whichever role suits the needs of the club.

The Senators were just one pick away from defensive beast Nick Petrecki, an American defenseman who was reputed as the most physical of this year's crop. Petrecki, a USHL player headed for Boston College next season, was expected to go early in the first round and would have been quite a steal had the Senators been able to land him. Instead, the San Jose Sharks seized an opportunity to pounce on the big defenseman, trading with the Washington Capitals (the original possessors of the 28th pick) to snatch Petrecki.

Without deviating too much from the focus of the Senators in this piece, the San Jose Sharks made out like thieves in this draft. Originally on the outside looking in after losing two firsts at the deadline in order to acquire Bill Guerin and Craig Rivet (with a first obtained from New Jersey earlier in the season), GM Doug Wilson made a number of draft day moves to obtain picks. Aside from some picks changing hands, the Sharks added Ottawa 67s centre Logan Couture (a player Ottawa residents can surely vouch for) at the 8th spot and, as mentioned, Nick Petrecki. Leaving the SJ fold were Vesa Toskala, a netminder with only a year left on his contract who was almost surely to leave in search of a full-time starting job, and embattled winger Mark Bell, coming off the worst year of his career both professionally and personally, whose salary presented a significant roadblock to Wilson's free agency aspirations.

Other perceived big winners include the Edmonton Oilers, who maintained all three of their first round picks, though they did shuffle the position slightly. Ending up Oilers property were Calgary Hitmen defensive defenseman Alex Plante, college-bound centre Riley Nash, and highly touted playmaking London Knights centreman Sam Gagner. Strangely, the Edmonton Oilers sacrificed later picks to trade up and secure Plante and Nash, however it is widely conceived that neither would have been taken before Edmonton's 30th pick and certainly not before the 22nd. Still, the Oilers have at least two solid players and one potential gamebreaker added to their arsenal.

The St. Louis Blues, also harbouring three first rounders, did some shuffling of their own. When all was said and done, they emerged with Danish playmaker Lars Eller (13th), American defensive d-man Ian Cole (18th), in something of a steal, Quebec league sniper David Perron (26th).

The much hyped early portion of the draft went much as expected. The Chicago Blackhawks picked London Knights everyman Patrick Kane with their first ever #1 selection, as had been predicted the past few months. The Flyers picked American power forward James van Riemsdyk at #2, leaving the door open for Wayne Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes to select elated BCHL sniper Kyle Turris with the third pick. Like van Riemsdyk, Turris will likely attend college in the fall; Kane has the greatest chance of making the NHL off the bat, but will likely return to his London Knights to play out the season.

First round "benchwarmers" who might have made intruiging picks for the Senators include Bill Sweatt, Oscar Moller, Maxim Mayorov, Joakim Andersson and Akim Aliu. Their destinations will be determined tomorrow as the final rounds of the NHL Entry Draft take place.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Front Office Reshuffling

In a fully anticipated move after days of speculation, particularly from Bob McKenzie and Bruce Garrioch, culminating in the all-but-official weekend rumours of Muckler's firing, the Senators owner Eugene Melnyk made the move official in a Monday afternoon press conference. The 5-year reign of the Senators' fifth General Manager has officially come to an end, with his position being filled by Bryan Murray, the Senators' head coach since 2004.

Muckler can leave the Senators with his head held high, after achieving the following (thanks to "DiscoStu" for compiling most of these stats):

  • six playoff series victories (the Senators had won just two prior to Muckler's arrival)
  • one President's trophy, one Prince of Wales trophy, two Eastern conference titles, two NE division titles, one SCF appearance and one ECF appearance.
  • Regular record of 195-90-18-25; total record of 227-113-25
  • Most wins of any team post-lockout
  • Among only 5 other teams to have made the playoffs every year during his reign
  • Outside of Daniel Alfredsson's Calder, players under his reign have won the only individual awards in Senators history: first team all-stars for Zdeno Chara and Dany Heatley, second team all-stars for Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson.
While it seems the failure to acquire veteran Gary Roberts from the Florida against express orders from Melnyk may have been Muckler's downfall, he has made some superb acquistions, whether through free agency or otherwise, including Dany Heatley, Dean McAmmond and Mike Comrie. Without attaching opinion to the value of trades during his reign, here is a list of the most major transactions made by Muckler:

  • Acquired Brian Pothier from Atlanta Thrashers for Shawn McEachern and 6th round pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft on June 29, 2002
  • Acquired Peter Schaefer from Vancouver Canucks for Sami Salo on September 12, 2002
  • Acquired Vaclav Varada from Buffalo Sabres for Jakub Klepis on February 25, 2003
  • Acquired Peter Bondra from Washington Capitals for Brooks Laich and 2nd round pick in 2005 NHL Entry Draft on February 18, 2004
  • Acquired Greg De Vries from New York Rangers for Karel Rachunek and Alexandre Giroux on March 9, 2004
  • Signed Dominik Hasek in 2004
  • Acquired Dany Heatley from Atlanta Thrashers for Marian Hossa and Greg De Vries in 2005
  • Acquired 4th round pick (Ilya Zubov) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft from St. Louis for Patrick Lalime
  • Acquired Tyler Arnason from Chicago Blackhawks for Brandon Bochenski on March 9, 2006
  • Acquired Tom Preissing, John Hennessy, Michal Barinka and a 2nd round pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft from Chicago Blackhawks for Martin Havlat and Bryan Smolinski on July 10, 2006
  • Signed Martin Gerber in 2006.
  • Signed Joe Corvo in 2006.
  • Signed Dean McAmmond in 2006.
  • Acquired Mike Comrie from Phoenix Coyotes for Alexei Kaigorodov on January 3, 2007
  • Acquired Oleg Saprykin and a 7th round draft pick in the 2008 NHL entry draft for a 2nd round draft pick in the 2008 NHL entry draft.
And the first round draft selections of Muckler:

  • 16th overall in 2002 - Jakub Klepis, currently with the Washington Capitals
  • 29th overall in 2003 - Patrick Eaves, currently with the Ottawa Senators
  • 23rd overall in 2004 - Andrej Meszaros, currently with the Ottawa Senators
  • 9th overall in 2005 - Brian Lee, currently with the University of North Dakota
  • 28th overall in 2006 - Nick Foligno, recently signed with the Ottawa Senators, expected to be with the Binghampton Senators next season
And the following signings of core Senators players:
  • Daniel Alfredsson, signed in March of 2004 to a 5-year deal with 3 options years. After the post-lockout rollback (a rollback which Alfredsson, as a player executive, helped negotiate), it carried a cap hit of 4.339, making it one of the most economic superstar contracts in the league.
  • Dany Heatley, signed in August of 2005 to a 3-year deal at a cap hit of $4.5 million.
  • Chris Phillips, signed in April of 2006 to a 4-year deal at $3.75 million.
  • Anton Volchenkov, signed in April of 2006 to a 3-year deal at $2.5 million.

Friday, June 15, 2007

06-07 Recap Continued

Game 5 - Ottawa 3, Pittsburgh 0

In what would emerge as something of a pattern, the Senators took advantage of their first opportunity to eliminate the opposition, turning a 3-1 series lead into a 4-1 series victory. The final victory could not have come in a more decisive manner; thoroughly deflated from their game 4 loss in which they put together their best possible performance but still failed to earn a win, the Pittsburgh Penguins did not put up much of a fight in allowing the Senators to advance.

Their own offensive performance was nothing to speak of - despite lengthy powerplays at the start of the game, including two 5-on-3s as the result of mental lapses on the Senators' part, earning delay of game penalties for shooting the puck over the glass twice in the first four minutes of play. But the Senators penalty killers and Emery in particular came up strong, denying any opportunity for the Penguins to gain momentum and instead frustrating them to the point of collapse.

The Senators left the first period unscathed with a tie match, but exploded in the middle frame to secure their second round berth. Dany Heatley broke the Senators goose-egg (and his own), by notching just his second goal of the playoffs early in the second on a power play goal. Third liners Antoine Vermette and Chris Kelly added goals in quick succession, including a beauty of a Vermette breakaway goal that saw him crash into netminder Fleury, but not before the puck decidedly crossed the line. In an intruiging story line, Kelly's third goal of the playoffs tied him for the Senators lead after one round, seemingly cementing certain observer's assertions that Kelly was due for a "Pisani-like" run.

The Penguins never really mounted much of an attack after the third goal crossed the line, all but ceding the series to the Senators before half the game had played out. The Senators played defensive hockey worthy of their next opponents in maintaining the lead and earning the victory. It was Emery's first career playoff shutout.

The most valuable players of the first round for the Senators were captain Daniel Alfredsson, defensive pairing Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov, and depth contributor and penalty-killer extraordinaire Chris Kelly.

The Senators would have a couple of days to wait to determine their playoff opponent, but it was guaranteed to be one of the New York teams - New Jersey, New York Rangers, or, however unlikely, the New York Islanders. It was soon whittled to NJ and the Rangers before the Devils' six game triumph over Tampa Bay secured an Ottawa-NJ matchup.

The matchup presented some interesting challenges for the Senators. The first was obvious - after beating the "best player" in hockey (if not confirmed by his Art Ross trophy, it was by his Hart and Pearson awarded this week), they would face the best goaltender (again, if not confirmed by his regular season record-setting feats, then by his recent Vezina win) and the best defensive team in the East. They were also running to a red-hot Devils offense, with Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Zach Parise lighting the lamp at an unpredecented rate in the first round.

But there lied deeper intrigue in the slated series. The last time the Senators and Devils met in the post-season, it was during the Senators best (and most heartbreaking) campaign to date. The President's Trophy winning Senators met the dynastic Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals, and found themselves in a 3-1 hole before a game 5 victory on the back of Jason Spezza and game 6 win thanks to a Chris Phillips overtime goal found the Senators just one victory away from the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Stanley Cup Finals. Ottawa would lose the game with just minutes left, and watch on the sidelines as the Devils triumphed over the Mighty Ducks in seven games to take their third Stanley Cup. For veterans like Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Phillips and Wade Redden, no revenge could be sweeter than to defeat the Eastern Conference powerhouse that is the New Jersey Devils.

NHL Awards Review

Senators sniper Dany Heatley was the lone Senator to receive recognition at tonight's ceremony in downtown Toronto, earning a first-team All-Star spot as RW for his record season. The 26-year old, fresh off his second season with the team, recorded his second consecutive 50 goal season, just two goals behind Rocket Richard Trophy winner Vincent Lecavalier. Heatley added a personal best 55 assists during the 06-07 season, for a Senators franchise record (and personal best) 105 points. He finished 4th in NHL scoring behind three dynamite centres, Lecavalier (108), Joe Thornton (114) and Art Ross, Lester B. Pearson and Hart winner Sidney Crosby. Rounding out the first all-star team were Alexander Ovechkin at left winger, Crosby at centre, Conn Smythe winner and Stanley Cup Champion Scott Neidermayer and Norris victor Nicklas Lidstrom on defense, with Vezina winner Martin Brodeur in nets. Without a doubt, Heatley finds himself in very illustrious company.

No other Senator managed to place among the top three vote-getters in any category (let alone win one of hockey's celebrated awards), however several Senators did receive consideration for their impressive seasons. They are as follows:

Hart - Most Valuable Player
Dany Heatley 12th (16th in 02-03 with Atlanta and 11th in 05-06 with Ottawa)
Daniel Alfredsson 16th (17th in 03-04 and 5th in 05-06)

Norris - Best Defenseman
Tom Preissing 15th
Chris Phillips 18th
Anton Volchenkov 23rd
(all first-time nominees)

Jack Adams - Best Coach
Bryan Murray 10th (Winner in 83-84, 8th in 84-85, 4th in 85-86, 7th in 88-89 all with Washington; 4th in 91-92, 11th in 92-93 with Detroit; 9th in 05-06 with Ottawa)

Lady Byng - Most Gentlemanly
Daniel Alfredsson 21st (21st in 00-01, 19th in 02-03, 2nd in 03-04, 4th in 05-06)
Tom Preissing 41st

Selke - Best Defensive Forward
Mike Fisher 5th (3rd in 05-06)
Daniel Alfredsson 11th (20th in 02-03, 4th in 05-06)
Chris Kelly 19th
Dany Heatley 47th
Antoine Vermette 50th

Monday, June 11, 2007

Plan for the Off-Season

Just to give a quick synopsis of what to expect during the first bit of the off-season

-finish recapping the 2007 playoffs, hopefully done by the end of the week
-write detailed "report cards" for each player as well as the GM and coaching staff. These will take a while.
-try to report on the Senators' draft as much as possible; I don't claim to be particularly knowledgeable about less heralded prospects but I can relay the facts, at least.
-and finally, cover the Senators re-signings of UFA/RFAs, and come July 1st, our UFA signings, as the picture for next year begins to emerge.

06-07 Recap Continued: Round One

Game 1 - Senators 6, Penguins 3

Sometimes, it's about the little things. If Senators needed any indication that this year would be different, that captain Daniel Alfredsson had reignited the internal flame necessary to lead his team to glory, and that for once his teammates were ready to follow his lead, Senators fans need not look further than the moments before the start of game one against Pittsburgh. Inside a raucous Scotiabank Place, flanked by his stalwart linemates and staring down a jittery Penguins starting line (see: Jordan Staal), steely-eyed Alfredsson stood like a warrior awaiting battle. If the captain's dauntless determination wasn't enough to convince skeptics, perhaps the game itself might have been. The Senators came out flying; not even two minutes into the game, the Senators found themselves up 1-0 on a rebound goal by Andrej Meszaros, the first goal of the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs. Five minutes later, Chris Kelly added to the Senators lead with his first career playoff goal. Sitting on a 3-1 lead, the Senators opened the third period with a powerplay goal by Dany Heatley, the fastest to start a period in Senators playoff history, at just nine seconds. The final score would read 6-3; in all, 6 different Senators would mark their first goal of the post-season, 14 different Senators would factor on the scoresheet, and three separate players would enjoy a multipoint game. Though Alfredsson recorded a sole assist in the blowout, there was no doubt that the captain was the best player on the ice that night. He registered 8 shots on net, had an additional 5 go wide, and was a frightening offensive threat every time he set foot on the ice. Though he only registered two hits, he was also a punishing forechecker and aggressive in his own end, all but pulling his team by the bootstraps to show them how it's done. Without a doubt, it was not only Alfredsson's greatest performance since the 97-98 NJ series - it was better. At the time, it was hard not to be impressed with the performance. In their tenth playoff, the Senators finally got it right. Among Senators fans there was a general consensus about what the players needed to do to ensure a victory. Come out hard and aggressive, stun the neophyte Penguins with the amped up intensity of a playoff game. Dictate the pace and style of play. Fire anything and everything at a sure-to-be-nervous Fleury. Forecheck like maniacs and play the body like never before. Play a full 60 minutes and never take the foot off the pedal whether the score is 1-0 or 9-0. Now, in a sense these expectations were a pipe dream. How we wished the Senators were capable of playing. After all, through an 82 game season the Senators failed to play a single game where we could say with authority and satisfaction, "they laid it all on the ice". But the Senators did follow the gameplan to a tee, and thoroughly earned their 1-0 series lead.

Unfortunately, the second game did not follow the same script. There were several contribution factors; the three day layoff between games, the atypical afternoon start time, or the fact that the Penguins brushed all first-game jitters out of the way and remember how to be a hockey team.

Game 2 - Senators 3, Penguins 4

Despite the Senators best efforts to mount a 2-0 lead in a series for the first time in franchise history, the Penguins refused to go down without a fight. It could be said the Senators did enough to win, firing 37 shots at Fleury, and a total of 77 shots in the general direction of the Pens net with blocked and missed shots factored in. However, a stellar rebound performance for Fleury and some sharp penalty killing (or poor play with the man advantage from the Senators, it could be argued), left the match tied at two heading into the third.

While Chris Kelly's second goal in as many games seemed to have cemented the lead early in the final frame, the Penguins mounted an impressive comeback on the backs of rookie sensation Jordan Staal and sophomore king Sidney Crosby, with each of the pair scoring a goal just minutes apart as the game wore down. Though the Pens left the Senators with nearly half a period to tie the game, Fleury adamantly refused to let any such comeback occur, stopping a point-blank Fisher shot and a flurry of chances around the net in the final minute of play.

Yes, the Senators played well enough to win, but Fleury, Crosby, Staal and Roberts played better. With the victory, the Penguins stole a game on the road, and in turn robbed the Senators of their hard earned home ice advantage. With the series tied at one heading into Pittsburgh, the Senators found themselves in a precarious position; well as they had played in the opening two games of the series, the Penguins surely had the upper hand, the momentum having swung in their favour with the latest victory, and yet to play a game on their home ice. Fortunately for the Senators, it was the last time the Penguins would seem any particular sort of threat in the series.

Game 3 - Senators 3, Penguins 2

Though the Senators won the third game of the series, they also suffered a loss in the Sunday evening game in Pittsburgh. Making a play behind the net, fourth line winger Patrick Eaves was crushed by agitator Colby Armstrong in a devastating, but thoroughly clean, hit. Seeing his teammate lie lifeless on the ice, an peculiar hero in Dean McAmmond rose to stand up for Eaves by taking on Penguins winger Maxime Talbot. It would be the second and final fight of the Senators' playoff run (with Mike Comrie having battled Armstrong in the previous game), but it was as meaningful as any scrap could be.

If any light could be found in the loss of Eaves to a suspected concussion, it was that, as Neil explained later in the year, the team found a rallying point and resolved to win the game at any cost. After having scored a goal early in the game, McAmmond assisted on an Alfredsson marker late in the second, giving the veteran centre the first Gordie Howe hat-trick of the season for the Senators, with a goal, assist and fight.

As remarkable as McAmmond's game was, if anybody was more impressive in game 3, it was captain Daniel Alfredsson. Effortlessly marking his second and third goals of the post-season, and continuing his intensity in all three zones of the ice as well as continuing to exhibit his physical presence, it could very well be argued that the two veterans single-handedly lead the Senators to victory over a determined if inexperienced Penguins club. On the backs of #11 and #37, the Senators regained home-ice advantage and took a 2-1 lead in the series.

Game 4 - Senators 2, Penguins 1

Looking back on the series as a whole, it can be said with some certainty that game 4 was the game which broke the Penguins back, as it were. Not just because it gave the Senators a 3-1 strangehold on the series or because it meant Pittsburgh had lost both of its "must win" home games, although those were sastifying reasons in and of themselves. Instead, it was the fact that the Penguins played fantastic hockey, and still lost. The Penguins played, very likely, as well as they could possibly play, and still fell to the Senators.

No doubt they were the victims of some poor bounces, especially a fluky Spezza goal early in the game which came as the result of an intended pass which bounced off Jordan Staal's stick and fluttered into the net (no doubt Staal and Fleury had nightmares for weeks wishing Chris Neil's stick had touched the airborne puck). Staal got his revenge, scoring the tying goal midway through the game. It would be last time they could foil Emery, however, and a goal from an unlikely source in Anton Volchenkov (as a result of a highlight-reel pass from Mike Comrie) gave the Senators a lead which they never surrendered.

It was likely the sole game of the playoffs in which Emery "stole" a game, with the aid of his razor-sharp penalty killers. These penalty killers included Christoph Schubert who slotted back to the blueline each time Phillips or Volchenkov took a penalty, which was five times combined, and performed as though he was a #1 blueline and not the fourth-line winger Murray had made Schubert this season.

The Penguins played disciplined, patient and measured hockey, still managed 30 hits and fired 53 pucks toward the Senators net, but managed just one goal and a heartbreaking loss. The Senators would return to Scotiabank Place with a chance to advance to the second round in front of their hometown crowd just five games into the series.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

06-07 Recap Continued: Round One

At various points throughout the season, be it after a particularly disheartening loss or a flatteringly dominant win, fans who skewed both sides of the "glass debate" used it to their advantage in correlating it to the Senators playoff drive. An embarrassing blowout to some indicated that the Senators lacked the heart, drive, grit and determination necessary to compete for the Cup. Or that the Senators' inept goaltending and anemic scoring was clearly insufficient to mount any considerable threat come the post-season. To others, a regular season loss meant nothing, with qualification to the post-season being the sole purpose of the season - the details in how they achieved this were less than an afterthought.

It is a particularly interesting viewpoint, especially if the Senators' dismal start is taken as proof of the players themselves latching on to this philosophy. Frustrated with their quick dismissal in the 2006 playoffs, players and fans alike couldn't wait to get what essentially amounts to an extended exhibition period in the eyes of some over with, to begin the real season - the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Though the Senators exact playoff opponent wasn't officially determined until the last week of the season, the final month of the 06-07 campaign all but established that the Senators would be playing one of two Atlantic division teams: the stalwart, defensive New Jersey Devils or the neophyte Penguins.

Both carried their advantages and disadvantages; the Devils were a world-class organisation awash with veterans, leadership, and Cup-winning experience, still boasted the best goaltender in the world in Martin Brodeur, and continued to play the defensive hockey that had won it three recent Cups. However, they lacked the tenacious defensemen who had made the Devils run - Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko - and were in the midst of a leadership crisis, with the head coach being fired just days before the playoffs despite winning their division crown.

The Pittsburgh Penguins represented a challenge unique to anything the Senators had encountered in past playoffs (except for Gary Roberts). A young team destined for greatness, their naivete, enthuiasm and youthful love of the game was potential enough to push them over the top. Oh, and they have Sidney Crosby. However, the very inexperience which made them such an indeterminable threat may also prove to be their undoing against the war-tested Senators, thoroughly embarrassed in the 05-06 playoffs and unwilling to meet the same disappointing fate again.

Understandably, the debate that raged on among fans mattered little in determining the actual result; the Senators would face Pittsburgh no matter how well they matched up against them.

The days leading up to the start of the 2007 playoffs were wrought with considerable tension in Ottawa. First, the general nervousness in anticipation of the unknown - the Senators could be swept in 4, win the Stanley Cup with an unprecedented 16-0 run, or end up somewhere in the expansive gulf between. After nearly a full year since their last opportunity to challenge for the Cup, there was considerable impatience. Second, the layoff between the conclusion of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs left a little too much time to reflect on past playoff disappointments in the Ottawa media. Of particular notoriety was an Ottawa Citizen article in which columnist Allen Panzeri labelled the Senators "choking dogs"; the comment opened the floodgates. Jason Spezza responded to criticism of past Senators attempts, and by association, the "inevitable" choke this year, but explaining that the team is entirely different this season, with new coaching staff and leaders. Bryan Murray addressed the media more succinctly: any association between the Senators and choking was, in a word, "bullshit". And with that, the stage was set.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Recap: The Regular Season Part II

With the Senators failing to bite at the more costly bait at the trade deadline, they emerged much the same team they had been since the Comrie trade. Unfortunately, those ethics established roughly around that time (commitment to team defense, simple plays, acquiring results through effort rather than talent and a vicious killer instinct) seemed to evaporate as the most important part of the regular season loomed. Flush in the race for fourth place and home ice advantage, the Senators teetered on the edge of returning to early November form, blowing third period leads left and right to the likes of Atlanta, Toronto, and in a particularly stunning case, Patrick Lalime and the Chicago Blackhawks.

A 4-1 second period lead against potential playoff opponent Pittsburgh was quickly turned into a 5-4 shootout loss. The only bright spot during a particularly confounding week was a 5-1 thrashing of the rival Toronto Maple Leafs, where role players Mike Fisher and Dean McAmmond offered two-goal performances. Cited for lacking a killer instinct,the core of the team was being questioned as the post-season neared, as was their ability to make any noticeable dent when the playoffs did arrive. If they couldn't beat the floundering Blackhawks, how could they possibly challenge the Buffalo Sabres in the post-season?

With a lengthy road trip looming, it took a come-from-behind win over the New York Rangers in mid-March before any semblance of a dominant team returned. The team lost once again in the shootout to the seemingly impenetrable Penguins, but tight victories over the Philadelphia Flyers and St. Louis Blues (aided by the referees and video goal judges in this one as much as their own play) gave the team confidence.

The fourth line guided them through a slaughtering of Florida teams, registering 5 goals and 11 points as the Senators outscored the Panthers and Lightning 11-4. Senators sniper Dany Heatley also returned to form, making his quest for 50 goals feasible with 3 goals during the two game stretch, bringing him to 45 with 6 games left to play.

In routine fashion, the Senators lost a close game to all-star (err, third-string) netminder Joey McDonald and the Boston Bruins, before demolishing two teams in the thick of a playoff push, the Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders. The team was buoyed by the Mike Fisher line during the three game home stretch, who registered 6 goals and 15 points as the Senators outscored the three opponents 12-7. Heatley continued his 50 goal quest in humorous fashion, registering a goal each of the games, but with two of them floating into yawning nets.

As April dawned, the Senators were guaranteed a fourth or fifth seed, with their exact position and exact opponent (guaranteed to be either Pittsburgh or New Jersey) the only things left to be determined by the three remaining games, two of which would be against the very teams they would meet in the post-season. An April 3rd game against the New Jersey Devils was particularly of note as it came just one day after the firing of Devils' head coach Claude Julien; despite the Senators best efforts in forcing the tight game to shootout, the Devils did their new coach Lou Lamoriello proud in besting Ottawa.

The Devils win, and Penguins loss on the same night to the Buffalo Sabres, ensured that Pittsburgh and Ottawa would meet for the first time in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Fitting then, that the Senators next game and final home game of the season would be against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Tempers flared early, as a Colby Armstrong run on Emery resulted in an intense scrum in the Ottawa zone, resulting in a slew of penalties including misconducts to Anton Volchenkov and Ryan Whitney. Things didn't cool down from there, when recent goal-scorer Jason Spezza took offense to a charge from Jarko Ruutu midway through the first period, and decked him cold with an elbow after the two exchanged words. The resulting five-minute major decimated the Senators slim 1-0 victory, as the Pens scored two consecutive power play goals to wrest control of the game. Heatley responded with a power play goal of his own early in the second period, his 49th of the season, and it looked like it might be enough to force the game to overtime. Instead, a slurry of errors in the Senators defensive zone lead to a Maxime Talbot goal with just 10 seconds left in the game. Understandably, there would be no comeback. The loss left the Senators with just one game to secure the fourth seed and home ice advantage, two nights later against Boston.

While there had been talk about getting Gerber in for one last game before the playoffs started, and letting injured stars like Heatley and Redden take a rest, the loss to Pittsburgh made any such rest impossible. In a must-win game, the Senators found themselves down 1-0 just a minute and a half into the opening frame, on a brutal Marco Sturm goal. An equally brutal Mike Comrie goal evened the game, only to have Bruins rookie Petr Kalus return the lead to his team less than three minutes later. The Senators big line would have enough of it; they scored three consecutive goals, two being deflections by Jason Spezza, and one a Dany Heatley blast which deflected off Bruins blueliner Aaron Ward and past netminder Thomas.

It was Heatley's 50th goal of the season, his second such milestone in two consecutive years. Remarkably, it was the second season in a row where Heatley left the 50th until the very last game, as he had notched his 50th against the New York Rangers in game 82 last season. The goal would place him firmly in second in the Maurice Richard Trophy race, just two goals behind Vincent Lecavalier, the only other scorer to mark more than 50 goals during the 06-07 campaign. Heatley also finished 4th in NHL point scoring.

The Senators big line of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson ended the season with a bang, very much a precursor to the strong playoffs they would end up having. In the final game of the season, the trio collected 4 goals of the Senators 6 goals, and 8 points in all. The Senators leading scorers ended with 50 goals and 105 points (a franchise record), 34 goals and 87 points (a career goal-scoring high for Spezza), and 29 goals and 87 points for Alfredsson. All three of the Senators big guns finished in the top 20 in scoring, for the second consecutive year, despite an early slump and Alfredsson and Spezza missing significant time due to injury.

Several other Senators had record years, with Chris Phillips, Christoph Schubert, Chris Kelly registering career highs in goals and points, and Mike Fisher and Antoine Vermette setting new points plateaus.

At the end of the 2006-07 regular season, the Senators found themselves with 105 points, good for 2nd in the Northeast Division, 3rd in the Eastern Conference based on points, 4th in the Eastern Conference based on seeding, and 9th in the NHL. They would be facing Sidney Crosby, Gary Roberts and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Recap: The Regular Season Part I

The Ottawa Senators' game 5 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, and in turn the loss of the Stanley Cup Final series, leaves an entire summer for analysis, recapitulation, and the opportunity to wallow in "what ifs". Certainly, as the Senators reflect upon a season which began with them in the cellar of the Eastern Conference and ended with them Champions of it, heads should not be expected to roll, but it is difficult to say that finding oneself just three wins from hoisting the Stanley Cup is no less heartbreaking than not getting the opportunity to challenge at all. Though, as Jean-Sebastian Giguere and his fellow Ducks remaining from their Cinderella run in 2003 will attest, the littlest win is awfully hard to come by the deeper a team treads.

At the end of it all, the Senators should have no shame in their performance this year, neither during the regular season nor the playoffs. Yes, they were ousted from the Finals more quickly than any team since the 2001-02 NHL season, and they lost the final game in convincing fashion, a 6-2 scoreline which left little doubt as to the superior team. As much as the Senators might have wanted it, as hard as they may have worked to achieve their goal, the Ducks were simply a better team. Giguere outperformed Emery; Neidermayer, Pronger and company bested Phillips, Volchenkov and the rest of the Senators defense corps; players like McDonald and Getzlaf outscored the likes of Heatley and Spezza while defensive mights such as Pahlsson and Rob Neidermayer outdueled Alfredsson and Fisher. There is no shame, no regret, no self-pity. The better team won.

After the utterly heartbreaking and equally disappointing second round loss to the Buffalo Sabres in the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs, Senators general manager John Muckler set out to assemble a team that could beat the Sabres, a team that seemed built for the new NHL, an assumption only proved true by the 2007 regular season. Muckler assembled a team that could beat every devil they knew, be it Pittsburgh or New Jersey or Buffalo or any other decent team the East could muster. Without a doubt, Muckler accomplished his goal of crafting an Eastern team to be reckoned by its peers.

The Senators swapped slow, lumbering defenseman like Zdeno Chara (lost to Boston via free agency) for smaller, more positionally sound and offensively-abled blueliners like Joe Corvo (acquired via free agency from Los Angeles) and Tom Preissing (acquired from San Jose as a result of the Martin Havlat trade). They avoided potential dressing room issues and fan uproar by neglecting to resign Dominik Hasek, instead bringing in regular season and Olympic showstopper Martin Gerber from Carolina, fresh off a Stanley Cup victory. In what was seemingly a minor deal, veteran centre Dean McAmmond was signed as a free agent.

Though it was the first season in which the Senators made any noticeable splash at all on the free agent market (outside of the 2004 signing of Hasek), it was the July 4th trade of flashy winger Martin Havlat which brought the Senators into the spotlight. Cited as a salary cap move, and with Havlat only interested in signing a one-year contract, Muckler had reportedly been shopping Havlat for quite some time, attempting to package him for Vesa Toskala or, in what would have been one of the most significant trades in NHL history, Roberto Luongo from Florida. When contract negotiations between San Jose and Havlat fell through, the budding star was shipped to Chicago in a three-way trade along with veteran centreman Bryan Smolinski (another cap consideration) in exchange for Tom Preissing and centre prospect Josh Hennessy from San Jose, and a second round pick in 2008 and defense prospect Michal Barinka from Chicago. With the departure of Havlat, Muckler effectively put the Senators future in the hands of Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza.

Missing three crucial elements from their dynamic start to the 2005-06 season in Hasek, Chara and Havlat, the team struggled out of the gate in the 06-07 campaign. The Senators grappled with a lack of confidence, identity and cohesion. In an odd twist of fate, the very factors which accounted for their poor start resurfaced during the poorer stretches of play during the Stanley Cup final, particularly the final game. Rather than playing as a team and being confident and disciplined enough to stick with a gameplan, the Senators reverted to individualistic tendencies, with the superstars attempting to carry the team on their talent to no avail. They were all but lost in their own end, and on the rare occasions when they managed to establish some sort of consistency on the attack, their goaltender was unable to assist them in maintaining a lead or even maintaining pressure and momentum.

The truly poor start was not aided by an early slump from the captain Daniel Alfredsson, who recorded just a single goal in his first month of play - his lone goal being notched on first night of the season, into an empty net no less. Jason Spezza performed as though it was a skills competition, which his no-look passes landing on the sticks of the opposing players more often than not, and on some occasions resulting directly in opportunties and goals on the more unfortunate occasions. Spezza stepped onto the ice to a chorus of boos; even when recording points, the announcement over the loudspeaker at Scotiabank Place was not met with much adulation. At first it was more of an oddity - how could this team, previously so well-reputed during the regular season, be playing like, dare I say it, the playoff Senators in October?

Eventually the quizzical musings turned to venomous attacks. Alfredsson, Redden, Muckler, Murray. Each and every one of them was all but shipped out of town by a ravenous media desperate for a story when apparently there wasn't much else going on in the NHL - only a record-tying streak by the Buffalo Sabres and the collapse and effective dismantling of one of the most legendary clubs in hockey, the Philadelphia Flyers. Much like previous disappointing periods in Senators history, the team leaders stood up to the critics, and answered for their faults. Spezza took full accountability for his missteps. Fisher, Phillips, Alfredsson and Redden answered their critics graciously and pledged to improve, but the results failed to materialise on the ice.

Things didn't get much better when, after a resurgent week with three consecutive blowout victories against NJ and Toronto, it seemed the Senators might be back on track. Instead the team embarked on an extended early November road trip and proceeded to soil the proverbial bed. It didn't help that backup goaltender Ray Emery, at this point perhaps the only shining light in the Senators lineup, injured his glove hand goofing around in practice and would not be available to the Senators for a number of games. A 3-0 first period against Washington dissolved into a 4-3 overtime loss. A 4-2 lead late in the second period evaporates as Atlanta takes the game 5-4. A November 10th 6-3 win over the struggling Pittsburgh Penguins was as satisfying a victory as the team could manage. After an embarrasing 6-3 loss at home to the Montreal Canadiens, the media had all but established that the final straw had been pulled.

A two-game stretch against the class of the league and the Senators most fierce rival, the Buffalo Sabres, was just two days away. With a loss in either of these games, it was rumoured that somebody would be on the line. Whether it was Murray, Muckler, Mlakar or the players themselves who would be sacrificed, only time would tell. And with the future of the organisation on the line, the Ottawa Senators finally stepped up in the November 15th game versus the Sabres. The return of Emery to the lineup (and the beginning of his starting goaltender tenure) didn't hurt matters either.

Things didn't start off easy. At HSBC, the Sabres' co-captain Daniel Briere recorded the first goal. The Senators had two goals waived off, and another (the eventual game winner) was scrutinizingly reviewed for a potential high stick. In what was surely the most tense game in quite some time for the team, when Chris Phillips' long pass from his own end banked off the boards and into the empty net at the other end of the arena in the final minute of play to give the Senators a two goal lead, the Senators understandably celebrated as though they had won the Stanley Cup and not a seemingly meaningless regular season game to the outside observer. Senators owner Eugene Melnyk called a press conference the following day to issue a vote of confidence to his team and organisation, assuring the media that no one would be moved (had the Senators lost, one can only imagine if the "vote of confidence" would have been the kiss of death such announcements tend to be). A few days later, the renewed Senators again overcame a one goal deficit against the Sabres to take a 4-1 lead, this victory capitulated by a Phillips goal perhaps as equally memorable as the one from three nights previous; fresh out of the penalty box, Phillips received a stretch pass from Heatley to break into the Buffalo zone all alone, deke out Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller and snap the puck into the net, short-side.

From their the Senators enjoyed a reasonably successful stretch before encountering injuries to key players, culminating in a short stretch of games where, in the absence of Alfredsson (hip) and Redden (shoulder), Phillips wore the "C" while Fisher and Heatley donned alternate captain patches. Criticised as they may have been, it was clear the two veterans brought much to the team; in their absence, the team suffered 6-2 losses to Washington and Columbus. Though they regrouped briefly with a victory over the Detroit Red Wings thanks to strong performances from Spezza and Emery, and the team enjoyed yet another victory over the Sabres, those would be the last positive moments pre-Christmas. The team suffered blowout losses to Nashville and Boston, and in a November 21st game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Spezza took an innocent-looking hit by Martin St. Louis badly, twisting his knee. Surely the team was doomed.

Instead, apparently Heatley found balls under the Christmas tree; Alfredsson found skates (he might have been looking under Chris Kelly's tree accidentally). With the help of some stellar goaltending from Ray Emery (observe late December consecutive shutouts) and a commitment to team defense in the absence of Spezza, Fisher and Vermette (two players injured shortly after Christmas), the Senators entered the second half of the season with confidence, work ethic and determination. The early January addition of Mike Comrie, traded for an asset entirely useless to Senators in the form of suspended Alexei Kaigorodov, only helped signal a changed organisation.

The Senators proceeded to tear up the league, particularly the top line of Heatley, Kelly and Alfredsson, whose astounding production rates helped earn Heatley player of the month honours (in what was perhaps the best month for Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin). But it was really Heatley's commitment to playing at both ends of the rink, playing physical and forechecking aggressive, and generally being a creative force rather than a recipient of someone else's efforts than made Heatley's month without Spezza truly memorable. He demonstrated that he was a truly gifted player in his own right, not a leach his apparently invisible and lackadaisical play may make it seem. No where was this more firmly demonstrated than in the January 3rd game against the hated Sabres, when Heatley took matters into his own hands and singlehandedly dismantled the Sabres, recording a shorthanded, even strength and powerplay goal and an assist for a hat trick and four-point performance... in the second period alone.

The Senators entered February as one of the strongest teams in the league. After vaulting from the depths of the Eastern Conference into the thick of the playoff race as the new year dawned, the strong month in the absence of Spezza pushed the Senators well into the top reaches of the Eastern Conference, initially challenging Montreal for the fourth seed before, thanks to a horrid stretch of flu and equally horrid personal issues which befell the Habs' dressing room, (oh, and some pretty decent play from the Senators), they found no lesser Northeast division rivals within their vicinity. In fact, it was the Senators who were closing in on the Buffalo Sabres, themselves racked by injuries. Though the Sabres at one point held a seemingly impenetrable 30-point lead on the miserable Senators, by the end of the season the Senators were just 8 points behind the eventual President's Trophy winners.

Speaking of the President's Trophy winners, they proved to provide the most eventful moments of the Senators season. Already touched upon were the two pivotal November games, and of course the early January game which bore the introduction of Comrie. Unbelievably, the best was yet to come. For a two game stretch in late February, war broke out.

It began in a standard hockey manner: Senators mount a 2-1 lead in the second period, continuing their dominance of the Sabres, including physical dominance: Murray's insistence on using Neil to fill the vacant 1st line RW position next to Heatley and Spezza continues; matched against Drury, Neil delivers a devastating hit to Sabres co-captain a split second after he had dished off the puck. Drury collapses to the ground bleeding, Sabres rookie Drew Stafford stands up for his captain by challenging Neil, they briefly scrap, and the matter is settled. Uh, or not.

Infuriated at the blow to his captain, an incensed Lindy Ruff matches Mair, Kaleta and Peters against Heatley, Spezza and Comrie, instructing his goons to, "go out and run 'em". Heatley and Kaleta briefly tussle before the whistle, but nothing comes of it. Things are settled down and the puck is dropped, but no one but Heatley seems to have much mind for the little black disc. Mair mugs a turtling Spezza at the face off dot, Peters runs after Heatley and quickly locks him in a chokehold, while Phillips holds Kaleta at bay. Nothing gets too heated with the skaters, as no Senator is particular interested. The same cannot be said for the goaltenders, with Sabres netminder Martin Biron eagerly gliding to meet Ray Emery at the Senators blueline. Grinning from ear to ear, Emery makes quick work of Biron before the two fall to the ground. Biron makes a light attempt to trip Emery, the two get back up to have another light-hearted go at it. Andrew Peters finally sees an able and willing opponent, and accordingly skates over to challenge Emery. The two have a short battle but nothing much comes of it, with Emery unable to get a clean shot but able to keep his head out of signficiant danger.

However the best battle of the night wasn't even on the ice, but rather between the two coaches. A mortified Rob Ray stood between the benches, his microphone picking up the niceities one would expect to hear from two good friends on such an occasion. Murray stood on the boards to further emphasise his stance; Lindy attempted the same only to fall through (he was not, as some might have assumed, attempting to go after Murray). If there's one thing Murray discovered, it's that you don't go after Ruff's "fucking captain". Period.

With the melee resolved, Martin Gerber and Ryan Miller substituted Emery and Biron. The Sabres alone received 70 penalty minutes in the second period; altogether, 136 penalty minutes were assessed. Though the Sabres eventually won the game 6-5 in the shootout, the Senators overcame a two-goal deficit in the final period to force overtime.

They would return with much vigor in the rematch at Scotiabank Place two nights later, with Brian McGrattan drawing into the lineup for the first time in weeks. McGrattan squared off with Peters while Neil stood up for his teammate Heatley in taking on Mair for alleged comments made. This time, the Senators did not let revenge get in the way of the hockey game, however, and emerged 6-5 victors in regulation.

With an early trade deadline looming, expectations were high on the Senators to acquire a veteran leader to put them over the edge (an acquisition Muckler had consistently failed to make in past years, evidently to little success). Of all the GMs in the league, Muckler was perhaps more on the hot seat than any one. While most of the contenders (Anaheim, Buffalo, Nashville etc.) were considered to have already constructed solid teams, Ottawa's shaky start brought concerns. Additionally, Muckler's poor trade deadline track record (last year's Arnason fiasco a particular blight), signaled to many analysts a reason for him to do something. Though Bill Guerin was of slight interest to outside observers, as was Owen Nolan, it was veteran Gary Roberts who lit a particular spark among those searching to improve the Senators.

Having witnessed him play a huge role in the elimination of the Senators for a number of years in Toronto, and considering his relationship with Spezza, his impeccable work ethic, his relatively cheap price tag and of course the fact that he had publically declared his interest in coming to Ottawa, his acquisition seemed all but a done deal to some observers.

Of course, those observers failed to note that Roberts was Florida Panthers property, and Panthers GM Jacques Martin would not exactly be eager to deliver the potential "missing piece" to his former team and all but secure a Stanley Cup for the team that fired him, if the observers assessment of Roberts' potential impact was even slightly accurate. And of course, even if Martin was interested in delivering that missing piece, he certainly wouldn't do it at a price that didn't benefit his own club substantially, knowing how "desperate" Ottawa must be for Roberts' services. Ha!

Muckler didn't fall for the media bait, and instead acquired depth blueliner Lawrence Nycholat from Washington and depth winger Oleg Saprykin from Phoenix, all for minimal return. Still, certain members of the media could not release their obsession with a Roberts-to-Ottawa deal, guaranteeing that the Senators had made a huge mistake in allowing him to be moved to a potential first-round opponent. Even as the Senators advanced through the playoffs, certain analysts insisted that Roberts was the key, nevermind the fact that he had been golfing for a good 6 weeks at the time of the comments.