Senators fight valiantly but just can’t find last push in Game 7

Chris Kunitz scored in double-overtime of Game Seven as Pittsburgh squeaked past Ottawa 3-2 advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row.

PITTSBURGH – Craig Anderson walked, red-faced, and stared into the distance.

Fredrik Claesson kept his head down the entire length of the hallway.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau shuffled along slowly and flipped absently through messages on his phone.

Dion Phaneuf spoke through a voice hoarse with emotion as he wished a few familiar faces a good summer.

What stood out most about one of the closest teams you’ll ever find is that, with but a few exceptions, they left PPG Paints Arena alone. The Ottawa Senators bonded close like brothers throughout eight turbulent months together. At the end, after 101 games and more than 85 minutes of gut-wrenching hockey on Thursday, they had emotionally been broken apart.

“It’s just utter disbelief watching it go in the net,” Bobby Ryan said after a 3-2 double-overtime loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

“Shock, I think, at the moment,” said Anderson. “You know, it’s surreal. It doesn’t feel like it’s actually happening, but it is. We played our hearts out and gave it everything we had and we’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.

“We laid it out there, we put it on the line, and guys were dead dog tired out there battling. It just wasn’t in the cards for us.”

No one gave more than the 36-year-old goaltender who acknowledged that this might be his last, best shot at the ultimate glory. Anderson made 84 saves over the final two games of this series and had the Senators within one bounce of knocking off the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It was an incredible performance.

His entire season was an act of unspeakable courage. He left the team in training camp when his wife, Nicholle, had a miscarriage. He left again for two months when she was diagnosed with a rare form of throat cancer and underwent chemotherapy treatments.

Asked what he’ll remember most about this version of the Senators, Anderson didn’t blink: “Love.”

“The love for the guys in here, right from the day I left the team until the day I came back, I wouldn’t ask for better teammates than the guys this year,” he said.

Cruellest of all about the shot that ended the season is he still hasn’t seen it. He watched Sidney Crosby wheel out of the corner to his right and throw it up to Chris Kunitz, the high forward. When the fluttering knuckler came in high he was screened by teammate Jean-Gabriel Pageau as it sailed over his right shoulder.

Anderson briefly held his arms aloft in disbelief, as though the puck may eventually hit him. He kept his mask down to shield the emotions as he went through the handshake line.

“We should be proud of the way we played, the way we battled,” said Anderson. “We didn’t get a sniff since the first series. We weren’t supposed to be here, we weren’t supposed to do this. Inside this room we believed that we could achieve anything and we put our mind to it.

“A little bit of puck luck, and maybe we’re still standing.”

They had found a more resounding answer to every test than most outsiders thought possible. In this Game 7 alone, they answered Kunitz’s game-opening goal with one from Mark Stone on the very next shift. When Justin Schultz made it 2-1 on a debatable power play in the third period, little-used Ryan Dzingel responded three minutes later.

That only reinforced the notion that this was a team of destiny. Overtime. One shot. That’s all they needed to book a spot in the Stanley Cup final.

“We got thrown a ton of stuff our way this year,” said Ryan. “Adversity, on the ice, off the ice. You talk about Andy and Nicholle’s situation, you talk about for me personally having just a year from hell but finding a way to come out of it at the right time in playoffs.

“All different things. I think we just used everything – everything that got thrown at us – as a bonding agent. Like we used everything the right way, we channelled everything and came together. I’ve never been on a more unified team than this, it was absolutely incredible.”

The first overtime period came along and they found a way to stay alive. Phil Kessel fired wide on a breakaway and had a backhander spin along the crossbar and over the net. Kyle Turris kicked a loose puck to safety out of the crease with Anderson down and out.

He nearly beat Matt Murray with a wrist shot through sprawling bodies moments later.

Erik Karlsson, he of the incredible 18 points in 19 playoff games, did everything he could to get the puck moving in the right direction. The Senators captain played on a broken left foot this spring. He played 39:33 in Game 7 alone.

“They did it for a little bit longer than we did and a little bit better,” said Karlsson.

Kunitz scored on Pittsburgh’s first shot attempt in the second overtime. That froze the clock at 5:09. He’s part of the long-standing Penguins core that will be chasing its third Stanley Cup against Nashville in a series that starts here Monday night.

It will likely be too painful for anyone associated with the Senators to watch.

“Do you have two hours?” said Ottawa coach Guy Boucher, when asked about his group. “That’s how long it would take to talk about everybody and everything that these guys have had to go through and endure – a lot of the stuff that is known and some stuff that is not.

“It’s beyond pride, to be honest with you. It’s a lot more than hockey this year.”

There is no consolation prize at the end of this exhausting, exhilarating, agonizing tournament. Only one group of players gets to cry tears of joy while lifting the trophy and have their names engraved in its rounded silver edges.

But know this about the 2016-17 Senators: They played with the heart of a champion, which eventually will be consolation enough.

“Let’s get the hell back to Ottawa,” said Ryan. “I just want to go home.”