U is for underdogs, as in the 2011-12 Ottawa Senators. Originally, U was for underachievers, but something changed over the course of this season. The doubt and second-guessing that goes along with every Senators season was as second nature around the capital as the annual goaltending controversy. But this year was different. The disappointment of the 2010-11 season resulted in a full-blown rebuild in February 2011, and continued at the draft that June. By the time the preseason rolled around in September, expectations were low. Ahead of the team's 20th anniversary season, the Sens were as close as they had been in a long time to that original roster. It was back to square one.
Most dedicated hockey fans scoured major and minor hockey sites reading season predications and team previews. Things did not look good. The Hockey News picked Ottawa to finish 15th in the Eastern Conference, saying "it's clear the Senators have fallen long and hard from their days as a league powerhouse". Sportsnet also had Ottawa finishing 15th in the Eastern Conference, believing the rebuild would come with significant "growing pains". Sports Illustrated was somewhat more charitable, placing Ottawa 14th in the East. ESPN's hockey writers wisely chose division winners instead conference standings. Still, despite choosing three different teams to win the Northeast division (including one selection for the Montreal Canadiens?! Ok, it was from Barry Melrose), no one picked the Sens.
The pundits were so pessimistic that Ottawa started the season underdogs to finish 14th overall, let alone to make the playoffs or challenge for the division title. However, the team started the season poorly, and seemed to suggest that maybe the experts were right. The Senators lost 5 of their first 6 games, squeaking out a shootout win against the Minnesota Wild in Ottawa's home opener. Even more troubling was the lopsided early losses to Colorado (7-1 loss on October 13) and Philadelphia (7-2 loss on October 18). Those who thought initially that this team was much better than they were being credited for weren't surprised by what happened next. But everyone else was. The Sens, who had looked so lost, rattled off 6 straight wins. Those early victories featured several third period and last minute comebacks, making this team exciting to watch and earning them the nickname "cardiac kids".
As the games added up, the Sens continued to play well and exceed expectations. The players themselves were underdogs. Guys who had once been afterthoughts, like Kaspars Daugavins and Jim O'Brien carved out spots for themselves in the Sens lineup. Players like Nick Foligno suddenly started producing like second-line players. Many were surprised Jason Spezza, Filip Kuba, and Daniel Alfredsson returned from injury-plagued seasons in 2010-11 to be so productive. Erik Karlsson produced obscene numbers for a defenseman, but was still an underdog for the NHL's top blue line award. Many waited for the other shoe to drop, but it didn't happen. It didn't happen after the fabulous All-Star Weekend the city hosted. What did happen was the team kept performing and exceeding expectations. The Sens found themselves, however briefly, in first place in the Northeast division in mid-March, something unthinkable to even the most optimistic of spectators.
The Sens clinched a playoff spot with games to spare and while they eventually slide to 8th, the team and its fans were feeling optimistic heading into the playoffs. But again, the Sens were cast in the role of underdogs by the hockey pundits. Sportsnet's hockey brain trust chose the Rangers to triumph in 6 of 7 selections. The only dissenting voice? Ottawa broadcaster and resident homer, Denis Potvin. NHL.com's 13 member Stanley Cup Playoffs prediction panel all chose New York to win the series, their only unanimous decision (you'd think at least one writer would gamble and pick the Sens. It's like betting $1 on The Price is Right - someone always does it). The Hockey News gave the matchup edge to the Rangers in all 5 categories (forwards, defense, goaltending, special teams, and coaching), before predicting the Rangers would sweep. Ultimately, their reasons for choosing the Rangers to win the series showed the same disregard most hockey experts showed the Sens in the pre-season: "The Sens have been a pleasant surprise, over-performing in what was thought to be a rebuilding year, but that won't carry over into the second season. New York is the better team any way you cut it and especially where it matters: between the pipes. And losing three in a row to close out the season, as the Senators did, certainly doesn't set a good tone for an opening showdown against what was the league's top team for most of the year. A young Ottawa squad will gain experience this post-season and little more."
Someone forgot to tell the players. Despite never leading in this series, the Sens have been the better team in 3 of the 4 games, and have things all squared heading back to MSG for Game 5. Because they continue to be underdogs in these playoffs, no one expects much from them. Because no one expects much, they have nothing to lose and play like it. Because this team gutted-out wins with improbable third period comebacks in the fall, they believe they can win any game they fall behind in. They did just that on Wednesday, winning 3-2 in overtime after surrendering an early, 2-goal lead. Unlike so many of those underachieving teams, this season has not been about the organization's failings; consequently, there's been a culture change in this organization, one exemplified by their playoff tees: "Family 2012".
The underachievers of years past had an acrimonious and prolonged breakup. The underdogs of 2012 have forged the bonds necessary for success in this league, and they're not done yet.