Cinderella playoff run changed Senators identity

After a mad dash to make the playoffs last year, the Senators seek greater consistency this season. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Dear Ottawa,

Sometimes, to really appreciate where you are, it helps to remind yourself of where you’ve been.

Let’s travel back to the third act of our never-ending winter of 2015. Remember? We were all freezing off our favourite body parts, and patio season seemed so very far away, it may as well have been a desert mirage.

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At the All-Star break, the Senators were drifting with an 18-18-9 record, three notches below a wildcard spot, when goalie Craig Anderson went down with a hand injury. By Feb. 7, Silver Seven, a Sens blog, was calling that night’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets a “must-lose” and plotting how this was going to play out, once you got the necessary unpleasantness of the rest of the season out of the way: “In the realistic best case scenario of falling to third last, Ottawa would have a 1-in-7 chance at drafting Connor McDavid.”

On Feb. 16, backup goalie Robin Lehner suffered a concussion, and Andrew Hammond, the emergency call-up necessitated by Anderson’s injury, suddenly became The Guy. The era of the Hamburglar had begun. Two days later, Sens fan @chet_sellers offered the following:

A week later, the Senators embarked on a road trip in which they shocked everyone by sweeping all three California teams.

They just kept plowing on from there. Every time you thought, “Well, that was a nice run. This must be where they descend to earth,” they bounced or battled or willed their way back and spun out a few more chapters of the fairy tale. It was like a Hans Christian Andersen infomercial: “But wait, there’s more!”

Everything about it was plucky and fun and impossible to explain. There was the historic stretch run itself, but also the hero of it all, the Hamburglar, who came with his own built-in branding campaign—one that was seized on by a swooning city, not focus-grouped and rammed down people’s throats. And alongside him was a team of similarly young, unheralded guys suddenly playing the game of their lives, for their lives, and all singing each other’s praises to anyone who would listen.

The city that in mid-February was bartering with the hockey gods to leave Connor McDavid under the tree for them was suddenly planning the resurrection of the Sens Mile downtown. (That they tried to do this two weeks before the playoffs even started or the team secured a berth is so stupendously Ottawa that a stylized rendering of Senators president Cyril Leader asking the mayor to maybe hold off just a bit needs to become the new flag of the city.)

Ottawa returned to a familiar and giddy playoff routine that seemed new and amazing because this year, it should never have happened. The Sens flags unfurled in windows all over the city, the downtown bars started filling up hours before puck drop, civil servant dress codes decreed hockey sweaters the office wear of choice on game days, and the mayors of Ottawa and Montreal made their charmingly dorky bets about which local delicacies they would be sending up or down the 417 when their team emerged victorious.

But then, when the playoffs started, it looked like all that build-up, that incredible run against the odds, was going to deflate in an instant. After Montreal took the first three games in the series and it looked inevitable that Cinderella was going to be swept out with the fireplace ashes, I started to make my notes for this post-mortem.

And what I decided to say was this: the universe has no sense of storytelling; it either doesn’t understand or just cruelly does not care about what “should” happen after the triumphant montage midway through the movie. But then the Sens defied all reasonable expectations again, squeaking out one win and throttling the Habs for the next, and suddenly they were back home down 3-2 in the series with momentum on their side.

Which just adds another few scenes to the montage, and makes it more clear how this is all supposed to end, right?

Clearly, there are zero ways in which this team and the impossible ride of the last two months are a disappointment for Ottawa. If it’s true that a franchise needs to sell its fans either on winning today or hope for tomorrow, this spring, the Senators have done both. And because of that, you keep waiting for the weird yelly guy on the infomercial to reappear and bark that there’s more—not just lockers to be cleared out and sensible office wardrobes to return to.

Among hockey fans, Ottawa has long been seen as a team that lacks an identity. The Senators sit between two massive, intense fanbases, their history is too short to carry gravitas, and they have been neither good enough to fan themselves smugly with the glories of their past, nor bad enough to acquire a reputation as sweaty dumpster-divers.

But they don’t lack an identity anymore. Now, Ottawa is home to a young hockey team that managed to make it feel like an upset when a team that never should have been in the playoffs battled its way there, hung on for a good while, and then made an honourable exit.

This Ottawa team turned the impossible into the expected.

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