On the morning of Game 82, the Ottawa Senators and their faithful awoke to a fresh blanket of snow.
There have been two seasons that most reasonable people in the Nation’s Capital could not wait to end: this relentless, wretched winter and the Senators depressing 2018-19 hockey campaign.
The Senators closed out the NHL regular season in meaningless fashion – a 6-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Hockey Night In Canada Saturday.
Ottawa’s grim final tally: a 29-47-6 record for 64 points. Mercifully, it’s over.
A day earlier there had been faint hopes this game could be significant, at least in a spoil-the-party kind of way. But when the Blue Jackets beat the New York Rangers 3-2 in a Broadway shootout Friday night, they punched their ticket to the playoffs and eliminated the Montreal Canadiens from Stanley Cup contention. The only motivation for Columbus Saturday was to try to leap past Carolina for the first wild-card spot – to match up with Washington instead of Tampa Bay. Pick your poison. (In the end, the Jackets stayed in the second wild-card spot and will face the Lightning in Round 1).
How delicious, albeit a sour kind of delight, would it have been for Ottawa to get the chance to knock out Columbus after the Senators traded two of their best and brightest forwards – Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel – to the Jackets. Instead, the Senators merely finished out this long string of playing for the three Ps: Pride, Professionalism and a Place next season.
Marc Crawford, the interim head coach since Guy Boucher was fired March 1, insisted this final game was not one to mail in, despite its status.
“We need to have an effort whereby our fans can really see – OK, this group is starting to really come together and get it,” Crawford said. “I always think that if you get effort, then the natural talent comes to the forefront.”
Effort has not generally been an issue for the past month, but the Senators got caught snoozing early in this one, yielding three quick Columbus goals on the first seven shots before the Jackets rode out the win. The usual giveaways and lax defensive play gave Columbus a ton of chances.
The Blue Jackets were in playoff form while the Senators already had a foot in the off-season.
Defenceman Mark Borowiecki opted for a philosophical approach to Game 82, although he first reacted by laughing out loud to the question – is there a sense of relief this cursed season is over?
“Any day you get to play in the NHL is pretty sweet,” said Borowiecki, quickly changing gears. “I actually had this discussion with Dylan DeMelo the other day. You come up through the minors and get put in the ringer a little bit, it makes you appreciate what you’ve got up here.
“Your career can be quick, and very much finite, and you’ve got to make sure you make the most of every day.”
Fair enough. Make the most of every day. All the more reason not to make those days, or an entire season, a fright show like this one was.
Staff and media who cover the team are referring to it as one of the longest short seasons in franchise history; this from people who have gone to June with the Senators in a previous time. This one just felt longer than those extended playoff runs because of the mental fatigue of last summer.
Way before Game 1 of the regular season, the Senators had already lived through endless controversies, online and off, the trading of Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman, the resignation of assistant GM Randy Lee, and the Eugene Melnyk/Borowiecki owner/defenceman video that went viral for all the wrong reasons. This was long before the certainty of a last-place finish and the trading of Duchene, Dzingel and Mark Stone at the deadline.
Players said they heard the word “rebuild” but didn’t fully believe it until so many of their teammates were gone.
The 2018-19 season completely went to the dogs, so it was fitting that a canine would drop the puck Saturday night, the team’s so-called Pup in Training, the CNIB guide dog Rookie. The rookie Lab shows promise, along with several other Senators prospects.
On this traditional Fan Appreciation night, loyalists took home some $115,000 in prizes and giveaways. They also scooped player hockey cards and when the game was done, 20 fans earned the sweaty jerseys off players’ backs.
A lovely gesture, but even this annual tradition was tinged with regret that none of the hockey sweaters bore the numbers 61, 65, 95 or 18, stars now gone. Nevertheless, fans were supportive at the bitter end, a nearly full house of 18,425 watching the finale at the Canadian Tire Centre.
Say this for the Senators front office, after months of insisting on winning every argument, they have fallen over themselves with a sudden case of humility. Radio and newspaper ads from the hockey club are thanking fans for their support despite the team hitting “some bumps in the road.” Never mind that these bumps make Ottawa’s April potholes feel like a trip on a silk road.
Humility should be second nature to a team that followed up a 30th place finish last season, amid suggestions of “there’s nowhere to go but up,” only to dip one place lower.
It’s easy to forget the Senators used to be a lock for the post-season, appearing in 11 straight playoffs from 1997-2008. They were in the conference final in 2017. Ottawa hasn’t had consecutive playoff misses like this since 1995-96, just past the expansion era of the franchise.
Prior to this final game, the sun emerged and snow melted, hinting at a spring finally arrived. Playoff weather is around the corner, but the Senators will again be watching from afar while trying to get their house in order.
“The relief hasn’t hit yet, it’s still very disappointing,” said veteran centre Zack Smith. “We just played a team that had a very emotional game last night, getting into the playoffs, and we’re not part of that.
“It’s going to be a long spring watching playoff hockey. I wouldn’t say guys are relieved in here, it’s more disappointing.”
The Senators season wrap-up session is scheduled for Monday morning.