“When you look at the players and have to tell them that, that’s the lowest point since I’ve been here,” Mlakar, the club president, said Sunday, recalling when then-owner Rod Bryden had to file for bankruptcy protection in 2003 to keep the franchise from financial ruin.
If that was the low point in the team’s 15-year modern history, the high came Saturday when the Senators eliminated the Buffalo Sabres to advance to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since re-entering the NHL in 1992.
“You don’t get to take this ride very often,” Mlakar said.
The Senators were given the day off from practice Sunday while they await the winner of the Western Conference final between the Detroit Red Wings and the Anaheim Ducks. They’re scheduled to return to the ice Monday morning.
On Saturday afternoon, it was an overtime goal by Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson’s that gave Ottawa a 3-2 victory at Buffalo’s HSBC Arena and a 4-1 series win over the Sabres.
For a team that’s been at or near the top of the regular-season standings for most of the past decade, but had never advanced beyond the third round, the breakthrough was a long time in coming.
“It’s very satisfying,” Senators general manager John Muckler said Sunday. “It’s great for the organization; it’s great for the community. I think it answers some questions of the past.”
The 73-year-old Muckler will be making his seventh trip to the Stanley Cup final, most of them coming with the Edmonton Oilers, but for the majority of the Senators, including coach Bryan Murray, they’ve entered new territory.
“In that dressing room last night, we saw a lot of people who’d never been here before,” Muckler said. “It was really nice to see the smiles on their faces. They were rewarded for the great job they did.”
The trip to the final is the reward for Ottawa’s front office and fans, who have made it through the tough financial times before Eugene Melnyk purchased the team, the lockout and the salary-cap era that forced the team to say goodbye to stars such as Zdeno Chara and Martin Havlat.
Most recently, a slow start this season by the Senators had the futures of Muckler, Murray and even Alfredsson, in doubt. But Muckler said the patience of the organization and the community has paid off.
“The hockey fans here have been very patient,” Muckler said. “We’ve had our failures. The biggest thing you need going through this era is patience.
Without patience, a lot of mistakes could have been made. Everyone in our organization has shown a lot of patience.”
The achievement was not lost on those fans. Saturday’s win touched off celebrations throughout the area and fans flooded Elgin Street, a popular strip of restaurants and bars in the city’s downtown core and a massive crowd – estimated by Mlakar as a few thousand – greeted the club’s charter upon its return to the airport Saturday evening.
Meanwhile, the players preferred to keep things low key, enjoying a private team dinner at a suburban restaurant with the knowledge that they still had more business to take care of as they try to become the first Canadian team since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup.
“That’s the way our club’s been all year long, very business-like,” Muckler said. “It’s nice to be the Eastern Conference champions, but there’s another step to it and I think everybody knows that.”
The Senators have compiled an impressive 12-3 record en route to the final, but expect to face their toughest test in Anaheim or Detroit when the best-of-seven series eventually gets underway, which isn’t expected to be any earlier than Saturday.
Muckler said he’d expect the Ducks to present a tougher task physically for the Senators, but the Red Wings’ veteran lineup would pose its own set of challenges to Ottawa.
But with all of Ottawa’s pieces falling into place during the season, including the newfound maturity and development of players like Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley and the clutch play of Alfredsson, the Senators will be tough to beat.
“I don’t think our chemistry’s ever been better than it has this year. I don’t think our leadership’s ever been better,” Muckler said.
“I have no preference (between Anaheim and Detroit) because whoever we get is a very good hockey club. All I know is we have a good chance going in.”