With the playoffs beginning tonight at Pittsburgh, the Ottawa Senators are looking to keep their roller-coaster season on the rails and avoid a crash against the favoured Penguins.
Despite their lukewarm play of late, the Senators did win their season series with the Penguins 3-1, and Ottawa defeated Pittsburgh four games to one in last year’s Eastern Conference quarter-final. But Pittsburgh has two of the NHL’s brightest talents in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, while injuries to Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher are expected to sideline two of Ottawa’s key players for the first round.
Ottawa begins its Stanley Cup quest as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, on the road against the No. 2 Penguins tonight at Mellon Arena.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for a team that advanced to the Cup final last year.
Ottawa sprinted to the top of the East this season, setting an NHL record by gaining 30 of a possible 34 points in an impressive 15-2 start.
But by the end of November, things had soured. Fisher was struggling — going 13 games without a goal — and injuries sidelined Alfredsson and forwards Dany Heatley and Chris Neil. The team lost six games to start December, but rebounded with a six-game winning streak.
The Sens were back on track, but not for long.
Goaltender Ray Emery’s habitual tardiness and poor practice habits took centre stage, including a fight with a teammate and then a stick-throwing incident on Dec. 27. Two days later, Emery arrived five minutes before the start of practice and was sent home by coach John Paddock.
Fast-forward to Jan. 12. The Senators played their best game of the season to down the NHL-leading Detroit Red Wings 3-2 but lost Heatley for weeks to a separated right shoulder.
Ottawa skidded into the all-star break with five losses in seven games and Emery was late for practice again when the team reconvened in Long Island.
General manager Bryan Murray tried to shake things up trading defenceman Joe Corvo and forward Patrick Eaves to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for winger Cory Stillman and blue-liner Mike Commodore, but things remained largely the same and the inconsistency ended up costing Paddock his job.
Murray stepped behind the bench and his presence did spark the Senators briefly. The club regained first place in the conference after beating Montreal on March 13, but sagged again going into the playoffs.
After starting strongly atop the East, the Sens relied on a 4-3 win by the Florida Panthers against the Carolina Hurricanes on April 4 just to squeak into the playoffs.
Now they’ll see what they can do with the opportunity.