Oh so close

An­other deep play­off run seems un­likely for Se­na­tors in near fu­ture

Cape Breton Post - - Sports - BY JONAS SIEGEL

While the sting was still fresh from a de­feat in dou­ble over­time, the Ot­tawa Se­na­tors were al­ready hope­fully look­ing to the fu­ture af­ter Game 7 of the Eastern Conference fi­nal.

“We’ve got a lot to build on right now,’’ winger Bobby Ryan said af­ter Thurs­day’s 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pen­guins. “I think we can be here a year from now.’’

But un­for­tu­nately for the Se­na­tors, an­other deep play­off run doesn’t ap­pear likely in the near fu­ture.

Al­most ev­ery­thing had to fall ex­actly into place for the Sens to win two rounds and push the Pittsburgh Pen­guins to seven games, be­gin­ning with un­likely reg­u­lar-sea­son suc­cess.

Ot­tawa was far from dom­i­nant. The Se­na­tors scored the fewest goals of the 16 play­off teams and were the only one to own a neg­a­tive goal dif­fer­en­tial (mi­nus-4). Op­po­nents fired 211 more shots on goal than Ot­tawa did at five-on-five and spe­cial teams were also be­low­grade with the Sens tied for the sev­enth-worst power play and ninth-worst penalty kill.

They sur­vived on those es­pe­cially thin mar­gins with mostly ter­rific goal­tend­ing from Craig An­der­son and Mike Con­don (eighth-best over­all save per­cent­age), an MVP sea­son from Erik Karls­son, solid cam­paigns from Mike Hoff­man, Kyle Tur­ris and Mark Stone, and a full em­brace that Boucher’s way was op­ti­mal to­ward suc­cess.

Much of that con­tin­ued in the play­offs with the Sens con­tin­u­ally pre­vail­ing in close games. While they de­serve some credit for land­ing that ex­tra goal, the good for­tune in win­ning six of eight over­time games can’t be dis­counted. Nine of their 11 post-sea­son wins were by a goal.

Nashville outscored op­po­nents by 18 in get­ting to their first Cup fi­nal. Pittsburgh, the Preda­tors’ soon-to-be op­po­nent, had 14 more goals than the op­po­si­tion. The Sens were outscored by three and out­shot 622-574.

They beat two more tal­ented teams in the Bru­ins and Rangers, but also a pair who have passed their Cup-win­ning win­dows.

Ot­tawa ben­e­fited from the NHL’s un­usual play­off for­mat which saw the two best teams in the league — Wash­ing­ton and Pittsburgh — face off in the sec­ond round. Had the play­offs been a one through eight seed­ing sys­tem, the Sens would have faced the Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets in the first round, a seem­ingly su­pe­rior team to Bos­ton and one that would have had home­ice ad­van­tage.

A re­peat of all those cir­cum­stances next sea­son and be­yond seems un­likely, though hardly im­pos­si­ble as this year’s for­tu­itous run proved.

Detri­men­tal to fu­ture runs and even Cup con­tention oth­er­wise is a lack of elite-level talent af­ter Karls­son.

While re­peat­edly try­ing to paint the Sens as un­der­dogs, Boucher of­ten made note of the op­po­si­tion’s higher-cal­i­bre talent, most no­tably af­ter a 7-0 blowout loss to the Pens.

“We know they’re a bet­ter team,’’ Boucher said then. “Ev­ery­body knows that on the planet.’’

The Sens have some fine play­ers af­ter Karls­son and even An­der­son — who just turned 36 — but no real stars. Hoff­man has be­come a danger­ous of­fen­sive player, but his ca­reer-best 61 points this sea­son tied for 35th over­all. Stone has hit at least 22 goals and 54 points in each of his first three full NHL sea­sons, good num­bers cer­tainly, but not elite.

Re­cent first-round picks like Mika Zibane­jad, Cody Ceci and Cur­tis Lazar have failed to meet that mark, though both Thomas Chabot and Colin White ap­pear promis­ing.

Depth is re­peat­edly stressed as cru­cial to play­off suc­cess, but make no mis­take, stars win Cups. The Pen­guins might cap­ture their sec­ond straight this spring pri­mar­ily be­cause of Sid­ney Crosby, Ev­geni Malkin and Phil Kes­sel. The Black­hawks won be­hind Jonathan Toews, Pa­trick Kane, Mar­ian Hossa, Dun­can Keith and oth­ers.

Karls­son’s mag­nif­i­cence pushed the Sens past the Bru­ins and Rangers, but the 26-year-old slowed in the conference fi­nal amid in­jury, fa­tigue and many shifts against Crosby. Even great play­ers need high-level help.

Also stand­ing in the way of an­other Ot­tawa run is an Eastern Conference that’s likely to im­prove as Toronto and Carolina rise and Tampa re­turns to full health.

The Sens are far from a lock to qual­ify for the post-sea­son.

Then there’s Boucher’s staunchly de­fen­sive style of play, which quickly wore out its wel­come over two-plus sea­sons with the Light­ning. While ad­mit­tedly evolved as a coach these days, his ways for suc­cess re­quire lit­tle room for er­ror.

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, teams that keep the puck less than their op­po­nents usu­ally don’t fare well over the long haul.

None of this dis­counts the re­siliency Ot­tawa demon­strated through an ad­ver­sity-rid­den sea­son, nor the abil­ity of those like Karls­son and An­der­son to raise their games, it just points to a re­al­ity even the cap­tain seemed to ac­knowl­edge af­ter Thurs­day’s loss in Pittsburgh.

“I think with the group of guys that we have and the way that we play we did ev­ery­thing we could to get as far as we pos­si­bly could,’’ Karls­son said. “And yeah we could’ve got a lucky bounce and won it and we would’ve liked that, but we didn’t and they won be­cause over the course of seven games they were bet­ter than we were.’’

AP PHOTO

Pittsburgh Pen­guins’ Sid­ney Crosby (87) and Ot­tawa Se­na­tors’ Erik Karls­son em­brace in the hand­shake line fol­low­ing a 3-2 Pen­guins win in the sec­ond over­time pe­riod of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference fi­nal in the NHL Stan­ley Cup hockey play­offs Fri­day in Pittsburgh.

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