The Tampa Bay Lightning head coach had notepads filling up furiously last April before Game 1 against Ottawa when he suggested all the pressure was on the Senators to deliver as top seeds, a psychological salvo meant to get the opposition off their game.
It didn’t work.
Murray tried his own version ahead of Wednesday’s playoff opener with Pittsburgh 7 p.m. ET, raising 30 pair of eyebrows during his news conference by saying his team was the actual underdog against the upstart Penguins.
“I listen to lots of the observations and many, many people think that Pittsburgh are the team that’s going to be beat us without a doubt,” the veteran Senators coach said without a trace of a smile. “So I think they’ve got lots to lose. If they’re regarded as the best team, and they don’t win, then what happens?”
Seriously though, Ottawa as underdogs?
“I guess we can call ourselves underdogs, it’s the closest we’ve ever been to being underdogs,” star Ottawa centre Jason Spezza said after practice. “A lot of people want to see Pittsburgh go on and see all their young talent flourish. We hope can stop that.”
The underdog role is not what the Senators have been accustomed to over the last decade. Instead, they make a habit of walking through the regular season, grabbing one of the top seeds in the Eastern Conference and then losing to a lower seed in the first or second round.
Will this year be any different? There is a sense that maybe it will because the Senators faced some serious adversity early in the season, to the point where owner Eugene Melnyk took the unusual step of holding a media conference call to quell rampant speculation that Murray and/or GM John Muckler would be fired any day.
“In November here it wasn’t very nice,” said Murray. “There was lots of pressure, lots of questions being asked, players were being traded (by fans, media). I think our team after that seemed to bond a little better. We had a great second half. To be 25 points behind Buffalo at Christmas time and to finish eight back . . . I thought it was a real good achievement for this team.”
The Senators came out of that adversity a closer-knit unit and perhaps sporting a stronger mental edge after turning around a season headed south.
“There’s no other way to go but win or else you concede your season,” Spezza said, looking back. “We just found a way to start winning. We learned to play a little tighter defensively and I think we became a better team. We learned a lot during that time.”
After starting off 8-11-1 in their first 20 games, the Senators went 40-14-8 over the final 62, as dominant as any team in the NHL. So underdogs they are not against the Penguins, a feeling captain Daniel Alfredsson essentially spelled out when asked how disappointed he’d be losing in the first round to Pittsburgh.
“We feel like we have lots to lose if we don’t win this series,” said Alfredsson. “At the same time we respect that team, we know their capabilities. We have a tough challenge ahead of us. But we would be very disappointed if we don’t go past the first round.”
Technically, there is no underdog in this series, both teams tying with 105 points in the standings. But the feeling among most observers is that the seasoned Senators will prevail as Sidney Crosby and his young teammates stomach an important lesson in their first playoff and come back stronger for it. Or so the theory goes.
But while Crosby, Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin are wet behind the ears when it comes to playoff hockey, Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi are not. Their post-season experience could help balance any shortcomings the young Penguin stars have in that regard.
Win or lose, the Senators get to start the playoffs on centre stage in the East with Montreal and Toronto both out. That means top billing on Hockey Night In Canada.
“Toronto always gets the (Hockey Night) games or Montreal is ahead of us, too, so it’s great,” said Ottawa defenceman Wade Redden. “You want to be on that platform, it’s exciting.”
Murray sees the extra spotlight as a chance for some of his players to get the credit they deserve.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for a lot of our players, I really do,” he said. “I think there have been some of them here with labels, some of them are getting their first chance. I really think that’s an opportunity for each and every player in the organization to just step up and play the way they can play. . . . I take great pride in the fact that No. 1, we’re playing in the playoffs, and No. 2, that we’re representing this part of the country.”