I miss Sens Mile. There, I said it. And if you’re reading this then maybe you do too. We’ve all heard the jokes: “it’s thirty kilometres from the arena,” “Ottawa goes to bed at ten PM,” “Elgin’s always under construction.” I miss it, though. In the months since I started contributing here at Silver Seven, I’ve realized how many expatriate Sens fans miss living in Ottawa and I’ve learned to be even more grateful because I can go to games or, in lieu of that, to establishments packed with Sens fans. Now somehow, in the blink of an eye, I haven’t caught a game on Sens mile in seven years. A lot has changed in Ottawa since then and yet I remember the last game I watched on Elgin street like it happened last night.
In 2012, the Senators had something of an identity crisis on their hands. They still had a core of veterans hanging around from the glory days of the early- to mid-2000s (Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Chris Phillips among them), and they had future stars like Erik Karlsson, Mika Zibanejad, and Robin Lehner poised to break out. To round out the roster, the Senators had added free agents like Sergei Gonchar, consolation prizes like Milan Michalek, and reclamation projects like Kyle Turris. With Craig Anderson backing them up and Paul MacLean behind the bench, the team somehow found a way to win. Thanks to an unbelievable (and eventually unsustainable) team save percentage of 93.5, the Senators snagged a Jack Adams award for MacLean in the abbreviated 2012-13 season. Almost too fittingly, veteran Daniel Alfredsson, rookie Jakob Silfverberg, and “malcontent” Kyle Turris led the team in goals.
The Paulrus somehow worked his magic once again as the Senators inched up from an eighth seed in the 2012 eastern conference playoffs to a seventh seed in 2013. As easy as it feels to point at the shortened season as a reason why the Senators sneaked into the post-season, Ottawa had positive differential in goals and shots, and had respectable special teams numbers that season. Gonchar still had something left in the tank at age-38 as he led the defence in points that season (although we know who should have led the team that year). Injuries should have completely derailed the team that spring as, most notably, Karlsson missed significant time following an infamous incident. Anderson missed the month of March due to injury and created an opportunity for Lehner. After a breakout rookie campaign the prior year, Jared Cowen suffered a career-altering injury, and Jason Spezza missed most of the regular season and the entire first round of the post-season.
I won’t go too deep into the first round match-up against Montreal as Ross has already graced us with a stroll down memory lane. In short, the Senators finally got a date with their nearest logistical rival and vanquished the Canadiens in five games thanks in no small part to the heroics of one Jean-Gabriel Pageau. For a team five years removed from the Stanley Cup final, having fleetingly attempted a rebuild, surviving a gauntlet of critical injuries, and with a closetful of old playoff demons, upsetting a storied rival like Montreal invigorated fans in Ottawa enormously. Five coaches later, with an unlikely crew of old and new faces, Alfie would finally get another taste of hockey after the first round of the playoffs. Karlsson, Anderson, and Cowen had all returned from injury for the first round and Spezza wasn’t far behind. And then, naturally, the Senators drew a match-up with the team who had ended their seasons in 2008 and 2010.
The Senators didn’t get Spezza back in time for game one in Pittsburgh and Ottawa fell 4-1 to the Penguins with Spezza’s regular linemate Colin Greening scoring the lone goal for Ottawa (keep that name in mind). The Senators played admirably against the star-studded Penguins, out-shooting Pittsburgh 36-30 but Tomas Vokoun stood tall for the Pens. I always lamented that Marc-Andre Fleury played so badly in Pittsburgh’s first-round match-up with the Islanders and that the Penguins switched to back-up Vokoun mid-series. Fans in Ottawa can only wonder what would have been if the Pens had kept Fleury in the crease long enough for the Isles to pull off an upset or if Pittsburgh had given Fleury enough leash to play against Ottawa. In the end, Vokoun took the reins and while Ottawa did get three past him in game two, the rest of the Penguins’ roster proved too much to handle as the Senators lost 4-3 getting outshot 42-22 along the way.
Down two games to none against a formidable opponent, the Senators got the jolt they needed upon their arrival in Ottawa as star centre Jason Spezza returned to the lineup from an absence that lasted nearly fourth months. After such an inspired effort against Montreal in the first round, it felt like Ottawa still had a shot. Although coming back from a two-game deficit against a team like Pittsburgh seemed like a daunting task, you could still feel the buzz in Ottawa. And so, without the means for playoff tickets, I took a stroll down Elgin to stand shoulder to shoulder with so many others clad in red and white, eyes fixed on the big screen and stomach in knots. The boos rained down when Sidney Crosby or Matt Cooke touched the puck, and Anderson stood tall for the first two periods conceding the first goal of the game with just a minute to go before the second intermission. Tyler Kennedy drew first blood and fans in Ottawa couldn’t have asked for a more loathed opponent to have assisted than Cooke.
Heading in to the third period, the next goal would effectively make or break Ottawa’s improbable season. There would be no coming back from a 3-0 series deficit against the Pens and likely no coming back in the game if Ottawa fell 2-0 against the suddenly-invincible Vokoun. Ottawa managed to keep things close, allowing just nine shots in the third period and Craig Anderson continued to make heroic saves. With less than two minutes to go in regulation and still trailing by one, Erik Karlsson slashed Cooke to send the Penguins imposing power-play back onto the ice. The Senators survived the first wave from Pittsburgh, and had killed off the first 45-seconds of the penalty but had less than a minute to tie the game or see their dreams come crashing down. Content to run out the clock, the Penguins got the puck deep in the Ottawa zone and headed off for a line-change. From below his own goal-line Alfredsson skated the puck out of his end and fed a pass to Gonchar in neutral ice buying Ottawa enough time to get Anderson to the bench for a sixth skater. With thirty seconds on the clock, Alfie snuck behind all five Pittsburgh skaters for arguably the best short-handed highlight of his career.
If you happened to be anywhere between Cornwall and Pembroke at that moment then you probably felt the ground shake when Alfie scored the last meaningful goal of his Senators career. Every Senators fan should remember where they were for that one and I am still grateful that I got to enjoy that moment with so many strangers who, for an evening, can feel like one big, red and white family. It was a perfectly Sens-esque moment. The underdog team, back on home-ice, with their roster finally healthy, giving all of Ottawa something to scream about. Of course it had to be Alfie, and it doesn’t hurt that it was short-handed.
Anderson played the hero in the first overtime frame of that game as he stopped all 13 shots from the Pens. Vokoun matched with 14 saves of his own. In the second overtime period, both teams killed penalties early on. First Phillips went to the box for a hold on Cooke and then Matt Niskanen tripped Michalek to give Ottawa a powerplay opportunity. Things looked dire as Ottawa failed to convert on that powerplay now 87-minutes into the game with some 97-shots total between the two teams. MacLean sent out his line of dependable two-way skaters with Erik Condra, Pageau, and Colin Greening. They managed to sustain some pressure deep in the Pittsburgh end and, in a most poetic way, with round-one hero Pageau tangled up with Sens nemesis Cooke, Andre Benoit flipped a shot toward Vokoun and Greening poked it home. And whether you watched from Elgin street or Palladium drive or the other side of the world you could revel with every other Sens fan, not knowing or caring what the future would hold.