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 below-grade 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 home-ice 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.”