After all, the Senators did a number on the Habs this season, winning six of their ten meetings (6-3-0-1) and outscoring Montreal 31-24. When goaltender Carey Price returned from a lower-body injury on April 17, the Senators greeted him with a 4-0 road win at the Bell Centre, with Matt Murray delivering 23 saves for the shutout.
Price gave up three goals on 14 shots, not exactly a playoff preview.
You know the story that ensued. While Ottawa played out the string, the Canadiens squeaked into the post-season, ranked 18th among all NHL playoff teams, and proceeded to reel off playoff series victories over the heavily favoured Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights. Bing. Bam. Boom.
That the Habs ran out of gold dust in the Stanley Cup Final against the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning is beside the point. Montreal represented the North Division -- and Canada -- with distinction during a deep and unexpected playoff run. It was a summer spectacle that had some in Ottawa wondering: Could the Senators have made similar noise in the playoffs if they had qualified?
It would be nice to be able to extrapolate the following from the regular season: the Sens were clearly better than the rival Habs head-to-head and therefore could have written their own playoff fable.
If only hockey was that simple.
It’s not enough to have one team’s number in the regular season -- or even two, if you think about how Ottawa messed with the Calgary Flames' hopes, winning six of nine vs. Calgary.
Ottawa’s Northern highlights, including a late-season run in games that didn’t mean much in the standings, were offset by an 0-9 record against the Edmonton Oilers and by the Senators' 2-12-1 start to the season.
Timing is everything in hockey. While the Senators took some huge steps in development in the second half of the schedule, the Habs got hot at the right time and rode the all-world goaltending of Price to three playoff series wins.
There were some similarities between Ottawa and Montreal this season.
Both fanbases grew frustrated watching their best young players sit out before finally being given established roles and playing time.
In Ottawa, that meant Erik Brannstrom, Victor Mete, Artem Zub and Jacob Bernard-Docker getting room to roam.
Montreal received playoff sparks from their kids as well -- Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Jesperi Kotkianemi (with early success and then a seat in the press box late in the final). Even defenceman Alex Romanov finally got a chance to join the fun, scoring a huge goal in the Habs’ Game 4 win on home ice against the Lightning.
The Habs also got a boost from some of their most elder statesmen -- Shea Weber, Corey Perry and Eric Staal, for example.
It reminded us a little bit of Ottawa’s run to the 2017 Eastern Conference Final, when Erik Karlsson was out of this world, but got some help from veterans like Dion Phaneuf, Marc Methot, Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur.
Those Senators didn’t have Price, 33, in goal (he turns 34 in August), but 35-year-old Craig Anderson was a rock for Ottawa in that playoff run.
Would Matt Murray’s late-season turnaround have meant he could have been a solid playoff performer this season? We can’t know for sure, but he will get a chance to write off his rough start to 2020-21 as a period of adjustment after coming over from Pittsburgh.
A two-time Stanley Cup champion, Murray knows what it takes to win in the post-season and the franchise is counting on him returning to that form.
For Ottawa’s young core, most of whom haven’t had the chance to perform in the playoffs, there were plenty of lessons to glean from Montreal’s run. Among them, how they came together as a group, played a physical style, and their resilience despite the score in the game (a quality the Senators have shown under head coach D.J. Smith). The Habs played together, and bled together, with warriors like Perry and Brendan Gallagher unafraid of staining red La Sainte-Flanelle.
Senators fans will also know this: A trip to the Cup Final is no guarantee of success the following season. In fact, recent history suggests that the losing team in the Cup Final tends to fall off the next year. Long runs take a toll. This season ran late. And putting lightning back in the bottle, no pun intended, is no easy task.
This brings us to a thought about next season, when both Montreal and Ottawa will return to the Atlantic Division. The Senators started this one-off season in the North, with talk of how difficult it would be to survive against the Maple Leafs, Oilers, Flames and Canadiens. (The Canucks, not so much).
Yet, the dearly departed North Division may seem like the friendly confines by comparison when the Atlantic gets down to business in the fall.
Tough sailing in Atlantic
For now, we will dismiss the Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings as the two teams in the division that are deeper into their rebuilds than Ottawa. The Red Wings won’t be down forever, not with GM Steve Yzerman at the helm.
In 2021-22, however, the competition should be fierce among the other six in the Atlantic -- Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, Florida, Montreal and Ottawa. Five of the six qualified for the 2021 playoffs.
Lightning Cup runneth over
Cup hangover? Yes, the Lightning ought to be plenty hungover after sipping champagne from the Cup for two consecutive summers. Maybe TB will lose a bit of incentive after all that winning, and they are sure to lose some talent to a salary-cap squeeze. But they remain loaded while playing in front of the NHL’s top goaltender, Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series since beating Ottawa in 2004, and its playoff flop against Montreal following a stellar regular season will leave a bitter taste this summer. All the more reason to see the Leafs as a tough out in 2021-22. Their main core, intact, has a lot to prove.
Don’t sleep on the Panthers
Florida is well-coached and managed and was no fluke as the second place team in the Central this season, just a point behind Carolina. It was nice to see former Senators goalie Chris Driedger (2012 draft, 76th overall) come into his own this year.
There’s a reason D.J. Smith always uses the Bruins as a prime example of a team that plays the game the way he wants his team to perform. They have been doing it so well for so long. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand aren’t getting any younger, but judging by their recent play aren’t going to lose it all overnight, either. David Pastrnak could score goals in his sleep. Nevertheless, with David Krejci, 35, and Taylor Hall as UFA forwards, Boston is going to have to do some serious re-tooling this summer.
Tough encore for Habs
The recency bias helps suggest the Habs are just going to get better as youngsters like Suzuki, Caufield and Kotkianemi, among others, grow into their prime. In the short term, however, the Canadiens are likely to suffer a letdown after their run to the Final and will be in a dog fight just to qualify for the 2022 playoffs.
Senators want in
All the rebuilding talk and buildup to the 2020 draft, when Ottawa had two picks in the top five, is done. The Senators want the league to know they are ready to pull on their big-boy pants next season and compete for a playoff position. While they don’t have to reach the post-season in the realm of expectations, anything less than being in the hunt for all of 2021-22 would be a disappointment.
The divisional rivalries are going to be intense, and a welcome return after a year of Canadian-only content.