The Senators surprised even themselves in this "rebuilding" season.
Picked by many to finish last in the Eastern Conference, they not only made the playoffs as the eighth seed but extended the first-place New York Rangers to the limit before bowing out with a 2-1 loss. They pressed hard for the equalizer in the third period of Game 7, but they just didn't get the bounce they needed.
That said, the lack of offensive punch that was predicted to be their problem finally caught up to them in the playoffs, where they scored an average of less than two goals a night. They had trouble both with the shot-blocking skills of the Rangers and the goaltending of New York's Henrik Lundqvist.
Defenseman Erik Karlsson, their catalyst during the season with 78 points, was held to just one in the postseason. Winger Milan Michalek, their top goal-getter during the regular campaign with 35, scored just one against the Rangers. Center Jason Spezza, who finished fourth in league scoring, had three goals and two assists. Two of his goals came in Game 5, when he finally abided by coach Paul MacLean's wish for him to shoot more and fired six at the Rangers' goal. Spezza took just two shots in the last game.
"I firmly believe you have to score your way to the Stanley Cup, not defend your way there," said MacLean, who was voted a finalist for the Jack Adam Award as coach of the year. "And we didn't score enough goals."
To that end, general manager Bryan Murray has pinpointed the offseason needs on another scoring forward and a defensive defenseman. He'll need two offensive wingers if still capable 39-year old captain Daniel Alfredsson decides to retire -- or just one to play with center Kyle Turris and Alfredsson on the second line if the captain returns.
There are some enticing prospects in the organization, such as wingers Stefan Noesen and Mark Puempel, who were claimed in the first round of the 2011 draft. Jakob Silfverberg and Mark Stone debuted in the playoffs after completing seasons in the Swedish Elite League and the Western Hockey League, respectively.
Are any of them ready to take over a full-time top-six role in 2011-12? Silfverberg, who was a regular season and playoff MVP in Sweden, is probably the closest.
But the Senators proved they can challenge in the East next season, and because of that they need to explore the free-agent waters for someone to fill the gap.
While there's talk they would be interested in re-signing Chris Kelly, who was with the organization from 1999-2010 but spent the last season and a quarter with the Bruins, he is not likely able to answer the needs for some scoring. But unrestricted free agent P-A Parenteau, who had 67 points with the Islanders this season, should be somebody Murray looks at closely.
As for the defense, Murray is assuming he'll lose at least one, if not both, of veterans Filip Kuba and Matt Carkner to unrestricted free agency. Murray is not interested in adding another offensive-minded blue-liner, as he feels Erik Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar more than capably fill that role, so a stay-at-home defenseman will and should be atop his shopping needs.
If there is nobody he can sign to sufficiently partner with Karlsson -- a role Kuba filled well -- then Murray should consider trading one of organization's top three goalies: Craig Anderson, Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner.
Anderson played well, especially in the playoffs, and a package that includes him might answer both of the Senators' offseason needs.
Defenseman Chris Phillips played his 1,000th NHL game on Feb. 9 and celebrated the occasion in fine style by scoring his first two goals of the season, including the winner, in a 4-3 victory over the Nashville Predators at Scotiabank Place.
"It took him a thousand games to figure out he's an offensive defenseman," center Jason Spezza joked at the time.
Indeed, not only did the win snap a seven-game losing streak, but it also started the Senators on a 7-1-1 stretch that was ultimately key to them securing a playoff spot. Phillips, a popular leader on the team, wound up scoring two more goals during the run.
The Senators had the Rangers by the throat when they won Game 5 in New York to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven, first-round playoff series, and they gave a squeeze when Chris Neil scored to give them a 1-0 lead in the potential clincher back at Scotiabank Place. Coach Paul MacLean feels they blew the chance to put the Rangers down when they couldn't make it 2-0 on an early second power play during which they didn't even generate any real scoring opportunities. "(That) was probably the disappointment of the season, for myself," he said.
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