Of all the players to score the biggest goal in the Senators’ modern history, it was captain Daniel Alfredsson whose overtime winner against the Buffalo Sabres vaulted Ottawa to its first appearance in the Stanley Cup final.
After all, it’s the 34-year-old Swede who’s been the face of the Senators’ franchise through its highs and lows. And, prior to this playoff run, it’s been mostly the lows that he’s had to answer for.
“It was fitting to see him score that goal,” Heatley said after the Senators returned to practice for the first time since eliminating the Sabres in the Eastern Conference final two days earlier.
“Alfie’s our leader. All the criticism he’s got in the past a it was great to see,” centre Jason Spezza added. “Hopefully, he’s still got more magic in him.”
The Senators now await the winner of the Western Conference final between the Anaheim Ducks and the Detroit Red Wings. The Ducks lead the best-of-seven matchup 3-2 heading into Tuesday’s game at Anaheim.
Although Alfredsson said Monday the Senators’ job isn’t done yet – “When you come this far, it would be devastating not to win,” he said – getting to this point has been a long time coming.
He’s played in every playoff game in the Senators’ franchise history over 10 straight post-season appearances without so much as a trip to the final.
He’s got that now.
“It was a great day yesterday,” said Alfredsson, who called Saturday’s goal the “biggest” of his career. “I watched a period of the (Ducks-Red Wings) game and knowing that we were there already made it really interesting.”
And whichever team does emerge from the Western Conference can do so knowing it will have to contend with an Ottawa team that has followed an inspired lead.
The line of Heatley, Spezza and Alfredsson ranks 1-2-3, respectively, in playoff scoring and has been dominant in series victories over the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New Jersey Devils and now the Sabres.
Alfredsson, with a league-high 10 goals so far, including an NHL-best four game-winners, has managed to not only carry the Senators further than they’ve ever gone before, but he’s silenced plenty of critics along the way.
It was just six months ago when, with Ottawa struggling to even reach the .500 mark, Alfredsson was the subject of trade rumours that had him being shipped to the Los Angeles Kings. In addition, a growing number of fans in the nation’s capital were calling for him to relinquish the captaincy.
These days, he’s the toast of the town.
“Alfie’s a guy who’s maybe misread sometimes,” Senators general manager John Muckler said when he met with the media on Sunday. “He cares, he cares a lot. You could tell in January when the club started to play better that this guy was on a mission.”
That mission was to erase the Senators’ history of underachieving in the playoffs compared to their stellar regular-season records.
Many believed things would finally be righted last season when the Senators cruised through the regular season, but they were knocked out by the Sabres in the second round.
It didn’t help Alfredsson’s stature as a leader when it was him who Buffalo’s Jason Pominville skated around to score a shorthanded OT winner in the deciding game.
So when NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly presented Alfredsson with the Prince of Wales Trophy on Saturday evening, it was indeed fitting.
“I was real happy for him,” Senators coach Bryan Murray said Monday. “(But) I didn’t point the finger as strongly as many people did at him for the previous year.”
At this rate, should the Senators go on to win the Stanley Cup, Alfredsson will likely be in line for more finger pointing as the one singled out when its time for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to hand over the Conn Smythe Trophy.
“He’s playing and getting rewarded for his efforts,” Murray said. “He’s certainly, at this point in time, been the best performer in the playoffs.”