After missing the playoffs for a sixth straight season, sometimes it’s hard for Ottawa Senators fans not to feel like they’re cheering for a hard luck franchise. But it hasn’t always been this way and, certainly, with all the young talent they have now, there are better days ahead.
This spring marks the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest seasons in franchise history.
On the ice, 2003 was the year when almost everything seemed to go Ottawa’s way. Off the ice, the team was struggling financially, still a few months away from Eugene Melnyk rolling into town. Oh, and there was that Game 7 thing with Jeff Friesen too, raining on Ottawa’s parade. But more on that in a moment.
In 2002-03, with a record of 52-21-9 (113 points), the Senators won the NHL’s President’s Trophy as the team that finished with the league’s best regular season record. Led by head coach Jacques Martin, that year was also the one outlier in a five season span (2000-2004) when the Sens lost to the Leafs four times in the playoffs.
Philadelphia actually did the dirty work for the Sens that year, taking out Toronto in the first round. It was an odd little NHL playoff triangle back then. The Leafs couldn’t seem to beat the Flyers, the Sens couldn’t seem to beat the Leafs and the Flyers couldn’t seem to beat the Sens. That again held true in ’03, with Philly beating Toronto in round one, before losing to the Sens in round two.
It was also year seven in a long, impressive streak that saw Ottawa make the Stanley Cup playoffs for eleven straight years. And they went deeper that spring than ever before.
They probably didn’t realize it at the time, but Sens fans never had it so good.
Looking back on those days, twenty years later, the Sens were led up front by star players like Daniel Alfredsson and Marion Hossa, both now Hall of Famers. They were supported by solid forwards like (ranked by scoring) Todd White, Martin Havlat, Radek Bonk, Mike Fisher, Magnus Arvedsson and Shaun Van Allen. On the back end, they had another future Hall of Famer in Zdeno Chara, along with players like Wade Redden, Chris Phillips and the late Karel Rachunek.
Tending goal was Patrick Lalime who, despite a few playoff moments that are memorable for the wrong reasons, actually put up career postseason stats that were outstanding – more than good enough to win a Cup.
One of the true strengths of the club was at right wing, featuring Alfredsson, Hossa and Havlat. Havlat eventually ran into injuries and never got to the Hall of Fame like the other two did, but “Mach 9” certainly had all the speed and talent in the world.
“Our right side was awfully scary,” Shaun Van Allen said. “We had basically three number one right wingers right there. On one team. So it didn’t matter who you tried to cover. Someone’s getting a very good matchup.
“We were deep. We weren’t really missing a whole lot – maybe just a bit of experience – but talent was definitely not a problem. And you don’t win the league without being really consistent and really good.”
With the President’s Trophy in tow, the Senators entered the playoffs that year feeling pretty good about themselves. But as they prepared for round one against Alexei Yashin and the 8th seeded Islanders, there was still apprehension from earlier playoff failures.
“We obviously had huge expectations in terms of how far we could go,” Todd White said. “I think every year you always think that you have the team to get it done. Because 16 teams make it and usually all 16 teams are capable. I know LA won it from the 8th seed. St. Louis won it after being dead last in December.
“I remember Game 1 against the Islanders. It was kind of a stinker (a 3-0 loss). I think Garth Snow was the goaltender for the Islanders and they shut us out in our rink. And, it was kind of like, ‘Uh-oh, is this gonna happen again?’ We were fortunate we were able to end up winning the next four games and get through them. But it was definitely a little bit of nerves in that first game.”
The Senators won that series in five, and one of White’s all-time personal highlights will always be his overtime goal in Game 3 on Long Island. That goal gave Ottawa a lead in the series they wouldn’t relinquish.
“That was my most exciting individual moment ever,” White said. “We go back to New York, the series is tied, and being able to get the overtime winner, I don’t think I ever had a feeling like that on the ice.”
In round two, the Sens and Flyers would meet for a second straight year. Ottawa had won the previous year’s matchup in five games. The two clubs alternated blows throughout the series, with the Sens winning Game 1, while the Flyers took Game 2. The Sens won Game 3, while the Flyers took Game 4.
Philly briefly flirted with flipping the script, taking the lead in Game 5, before the Sens responded with 5 unanswered goals in a 5-2 victory. That seemed to take the wind out of the sails of the Flyers, who went quietly in Game 6 at home, falling behind 4-0 and being eliminated with a 5-1 loss.
It felt like the Ottawa Senators had finally arrived, qualifying for their first Eastern Conference Final. The city of Ottawa was pulsating, embracing their hockey team like never before. Fans flew Senator flags on their cars, there was tailgating, sports radio was jammed with callers, excitement and playoff ticket contests.
Everyone claimed to be a hockey fan that spring.
“The second round had been kind of a roadblock for us,” White said. “I think once we got through there, we were pretty excited, in terms of seeing what we’d be able to do. And that was a big moment for the fans as well to get to the conference finals and playing further than the team has ever gone. So it was pretty exciting.”
“Everywhere you went in the city, it was all about the Sens,” Van Allen said. “It gives you an extra jolt. Like, there’s nothing better. Before the game starts and you step on the ice and the flags are going, the people are going crazy. The whole city was involved. It was a community affair and you didn’t want to let them down because they were so supportive of us.”
Van Allen got the Senators off to a magical start in the conference final, winning Game 1 in Ottawa with an overtime give-and-go with Martin Havlat.
“That’s the backyard rink, street hockey dream,” Van Allen said. “To score an overtime goal in the playoffs. It was a D to D pass, then up to Peter Schaefer, over to me, I passed it back to Marty Havlat, and then just went to the net. And Marty put it right on my tape like he does all the time. And then it’s just a tap in.”
The Corel Centre went wild, screaming and waving their now famous “Woo-Hoo” towels. And, at that moment, anything seemed possible. What didn’t seem possible was that the Devils might storm back to win the next three games and put the Senators on the brink of elimination. But they did.
“I think we were pretty disappointed,” White said. “It wasn’t like we’d played terribly in the next three games, but the Devils had a way of finding ways to win. And it’s not necessarily the best team that always wins games, but they would find a way to make the right play at the right moment.
“And I remember Game 4, we were tied going into the third period and we ended up losing that game. So it was a real disappointing time, knowing how close we were to every player’s ultimate dream and it was kind of slipping away. I remember we obviously still had belief but, at the same time, it seemed like it was such a huge mountain to climb.”
“We missed the boat on Games 2, 3 and 4,” Van Allen said. “We won the first one. I think we just played okay in that game. We needed to raise our game just a little bit more, which is a lot easier said than done. And we tried to do that, but it’s tough to beat experience and New Jersey definitely had that.”
“I think that we gave away two games too easily to the Devils in that series,” Arvedsson said. “I still think about what a great chance we had created for ourselves. I think about the atmosphere, the fans, and the hype in the city around the club. That was something really special.”
But then Jacques Martin’s commitment to defence began to re-emerge as the Senators turned things around to win the next two games.
With a goal and an assist by a young rookie named Jason Spezza, who played just three games in the playoffs that year, the Senators won Game Five, 3-1. Then, in enemy territory, the Senators’ amazing season peaked with Chris Phillips’ classic overtime winner in a 2-1 victory to force Game 7.
Phillips’ goal was probably the best moment of that entire season.
With about 5 minutes left in the first overtime, Marion Hossa made a hard, solo rush down the right wing, looking like he was going to skate around Devils’ defenceman Scott Stevens and then cut to the front of the net. On the opposite side, Colin White, Stevens’ defensive partner, saw Hossa coming, so he drifted over in hopes of landing the big hit on Hossa. It was the sort of kill shot Stevens was so famous for.
Instead, as he swept the puck to the slot area, Hossa opted to stay wide and cut behind the net. So, instead of clobbering Hossa, White ended up crashing into his teammate. Sens forward Vaclav Varada was all alone in front, trying to cram the puck past superstar Devils’ goalie Martin Brodeur.
That’s when Phillips arrived on the scene, a little out of character and almost out of nowhere, to tuck home a rebound.
Fans will never forget Gord Wilson’s famous radio call, excitedly bellowing, “I don’t know where he knifed in from, but he knifed in!”
Phillips was mobbed after the goal and, fortunately, no one was injured or maimed as Zdeno Chara, all 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds of him, sprinted across the ice and made a superman leap on top of the happy Ottawa pile.
The Senators had forced a Game 7 back home at the Corel Centre in Ottawa. Only 19 teams in NHL history at that point had ever rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win a series (the number today is now 31). Remarkably, three other teams had already come back from 3-1 to win in that same playoff year – Minnesota did it twice against Colorado and Vancouver while the Canucks did it earlier to St. Louis.
Ottawa dearly hoped to join them.
Just 3 minutes into Game 7, the Senators jumped out to an early 1-0 lead on a goal from Magnus Arvedsson.
“At that point, I was like, ‘Oh boy,’” Van Allen remembers. “Usually, when we get that lead and momentum like that. Like, it’s coming. Two, three goals… we’re gonna blow these guys out.”
Arvedsson actually felt like he could have added to the lead.
“Later on, I passed up on a great chance to score,” Arvedsson said. “I decided to pass the puck instead, and that would maybe have put us up 2-0 in that game.”
None of that happened. Instead, Jamie Langenbrunner scored twice to put the Devils ahead 2-1 after two. The Sens now had just 20 minutes to save their season.
“We were down 2-1 going into the third,” Van Allen said. “I remember us saying in the dressing room, we’d just played about 100 games to get here. And to get back here, we’re going to have to play another 100. So we gotta pour everything we can into this last 20 minutes. But New Jersey was as tough a defensive team as you’re probably gonna play and it’s not easy to score. And that’s why everything has to fall right when you’re playing those teams.”
Things started well in the third period, with Jeff Friesen turning it over and Radek Bonk tying the game for Ottawa with less than two minutes into the final frame. According to NHL.com, Devils’ head coach Pat Burns played it cool with Friesen back at the bench, telling him, “Just relax. You owe me one.”
It wasn’t long before the game began to take on the feel of “Next goal wins it.” And with just over two minutes to go, Friesen paid his debt to Burns, going from zero to hero.
The play started innocently enough, with former Ottawa 67 Grant Marshall charging up the left wing with the puck, one-on-one against Wade Redden, the last man back. Behind them, Friesen was charging toward the Ottawa blue line. But Sens defenceman Karel Rachunek had him well covered and even had a step on him.
Then, in an absolutely disastrous lack of communication, Redden and Rachunek both suddenly veered toward Marshall, both thinking the other guy would cover Friesen, who was now alone with a totally clear path to the net. Marshall’s “pass” somehow managed to get through Rachunek, then through Redden’s skates, and right on to Friesen’s stick blade.
A great pass? Not really.
“Two years later, we were at a charity event down in the Utica area,” White said. “Grant Marshall was there and he was telling us he was actually trying to shoot the puck there and his stick actually broke. So when his stick broke, instead of it being a shot at the net, the puck slid through Wade’s feet and ended up being a perfect pass to the guy streaking to the net. And I’m guessing that Patty (Lalime) probably thought it was a shot as well.
“Obviously, it’s sports and anything can happen. But there’s luck involved as well, because who knew that a broken stick shot attempt would end up being the perfect pass to a guy for a mini-breakaway? And he was able to put it in.”
With Lalime now leaning the wrong way, fooled by Marshall’s changeup, Friesen brought the puck to his forehand, and tucked it past him on the short side. The goal gave the Devils the win and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. And two weeks later, they won it all.
Van Allen has his own story about later meeting a Devils’ player from that fateful play.
“Years later, I’d taken my family to Disneyland in Anaheim. The Ducks (another of Van Allen’s former teams) had gotten us a suite for a playoff game. Jeff Friesen (also a former Duck) was sitting right behind me. And I hadn’t seen Friesen since Game 7, which was years earlier.
“Anyway, I just turned to his kids and I said, “Your dad broke my heart.” I didn’t even say hi to Jeff.
“So his kids were young at the time and they’re asking, ‘Dad, what did you do?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I just scored a big goal against him a long time ago.’”
So will the magical 2003 Senator playoff run be remembered fondly by the players or are they haunted by how it ended and what might have been?
“I hate to say it, it’s kind of what might have been,” Van Allen said. “What would the city be like? We would be remembered a lot differently in the city other than just being a good team. We would be recognized as a great team if we went on to win the Stanley Cup.”
“For me, it’s the disappointment of being so close,” White said. “I think it’s so easy to think about what might have been. I think back on whether there was something you could have done a little bit differently to change the outcome. From the time I started to play hockey, it was my dream to be able to win a Stanley Cup and to be that close is pretty difficult.”
Despite all that, the spring of 2003 is remembered 20 years later as a magical run for the Ottawa Senators and their fans. It was almost like a coming-of-age, Hollywood script – a great story with plenty of action, emotion and great performances. Unfortunately, not every great story has a happy ending.
By Steve Warne