Being an NHL fan isn’t easy. Every year, fans pour their heart, time and money into their team, knowing they’re probably going to get their hearts stomped again. It might happen by Christmas. It might happen in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. But it’s probably happening.
That’s how it is in a 32-team league. Even if your team amazingly manages to build a powerhouse, there are usually 8-10 other elite teams right there with them – not to mention some pesky underdog who comes out of nowhere. And this just in: There can only be one winner. Thanks to the NHL salary cap, it’s almost impossible to keep a powerhouse together for very long and take numerous runs at a Stanley Cups.
The odds are against them. The championship window is small. But hope springs eternal.
This is why fans revel in nostalgia, particularly in times when their team feels a million miles away from contending. With the 2022 NHL Conference Finals now in full swing (as of this writing), there are 28 fan bases – including Ottawa’s – who wish they could be there.
But the Senators have indeed been there before, making the NHL Eastern Final in 2003, 2007 and 2017. They won it in 2007, claiming the only Prince of Wales Trophy in their history. But that doesn’t automatically mean they were the best. Those other Senator finalists fell to the teams (New Jersey 2003, Pittsburgh 2017) that would go on to win the Stanley Cup.
So, it begs the question: Which Ottawa Senators’ Conference Finalist was truly the best?
The first thing to notice and appreciate is how ridiculously deep the Senators were at right wing. In Alfredsson, Hossa and Havlat, you had 3 of the club’s top 4 scorers overall that year. Throw in Fisher, who’d go on to spend most of his time at centre in Ottawa and that’s a dominant right side.
The blue line also stands out. There was no one here trying to be a point per game guy. There was solid offence from the likes of Redden and Chara, but there was also balance. It was a bigger, talented group, whose first priority was defending – particularly under head coach Jacques Martin. Martin was a stickler for defensive details and those guys delivered. Patrick Lalime was the beneficiary, and was excellent in his own right, posting a .924 save percentage that spring. Damn you, Jeff Friesen.
This was the only Cup finalist in Ottawa’s 30-year history. Right away, taking a glance at that roster, the “What if?” game begins. What if they’d hung on to Chara, Hossa and Havlat?
The forward group was extremely top heavy with the greatest line in club history, but things dropped off significantly after that. After Heatley, Spezza and Alfredsson, you basically had three good third lines. Phillips and Volchenkov were shot blocking, shut-down machines that spring. And the late Ray Emery was outstanding, despite playing with an injured thumb that entire playoff run. Damn you, Chris Pronger.
This was a magical, unexpected run. The Sens entered the 2017 playoffs with the league’s 12th best record, and despite Guy Boucher’s heavy insistence on defensive structure, they were the only playoff team that year with a negative goal differential.
This was Erik Karlsson truly at his best, all over the highlight reels, leading the Sens in scoring in both the regular season and playoffs. Bobby Ryan also found his final magic in the league, unexpectedly going on a tear, scoring 15 points in that run. He was one of several good forwards who became great that spring, or at least stepped up to create great moments. Ryan, Pageau, Macarthur, Brassard etc. On defence, Methot was the perfect defensive partner for Karlsson. But the club did not have what you’d call an ideal second line pairing in the remaining four. Craig Anderson’s attempts to play the puck occasionally drove us crazy, but he was phenomenal that year with a .926 save percentage. Damn you, Chris Kunitz.
So, based on all that, we’re giving the nod to the 2003 squad as the greatest Senators Conference Finalist ever assembled. That depth at forward (particularly on the right wing) and defence is simply too good to ignore.
Meanwhile, with a little more development and a few key additions, who knows? Perhaps the core of today’s roster will one day emerge as the greatest of them all.
Steve Warne | Faces Magazine