My favourite byline of 2017: Chris Johnston

Chris Kunitz fired it over Craig Anderson’s shoulder in double overtime to send Pittsburgh to their second straight Stanley Cup Final.

Over the holidays we’ll be re-visiting Sportsnet staff writers’ favourite pieces from 2017. Today: Chris Johnston explains why a piece on the Ottawa Senators‘ improbable, and emotional, playoff run tops his list.

There was something incredibly charming about the unexpected Ottawa Senators playoff run last spring.

Between the individual hardships that had bonded them closer together – including Nicholle Anderson’s ongoing cancer fight, which provided a daily dose of perspective – and the sheer unlikeliness that they would get within a goal of the Stanley Cup Final, they felt like a team of destiny.

The Senators knew what they were. The players didn’t shy away from the fact that they needed to play a trapping defensive style to upset Boston and the New York Rangers. On more than one occasion, I had one of them joke with me about the “system” fuelling their success.

Still, the stakes were raised with each passing day, until May 25 – when they found themselves playing Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in Pittsburgh. The Senators were overmatched for much of the night, but still found a way to get the game into a fourth period and eventually a fifth.

Then it was over in a blink of an eye.

Heading into a losing locker room to ask questions after that kind of loss is never fun. The emotions are so raw. I distinctly remember Craig Anderson’s response when asked what he’d remember most about that group: “Love.”

You couldn’t mistake the feeling that the players knew deep down there wouldn’t be a similar opportunity awaiting them next season. They had defied odds that were unlikely to be defied again. They had fallen one bounce short.

My job so often is about chronicling incredible achievement – records, wins, championships – but there was something powerful in Ottawa’s loss. As individuals and a team, they walked away from a crappy year as champions because of how they performed under the circumstances.

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

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.”

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