OTTAWA -- The Ottawa Senators head into the off-season confident their future is bright.
They'll also wonder -- at least on some level -- what might have been.
The rebuilding Senators started the 56-game schedule a dismal 2-12-1 thanks in large part to some horrendous goaltending and miscast veterans, but went 21-16-4 from Feb. 13 onwards -- good for third in the Canadian-based North Division over that span -- after the crease situation improved and the organization handed its young core more responsibility.
"We're just rolling now," said Senators forward Connor Brown, who scored his career-high 21st goal in Ottawa's finale. "We're really finding our stride. We're competing against the best teams every single night. We're not just squeaking out wins. We're really playing well.
"You wish you could have 82 games, but it is what it is. It's important to bottle this up and hit the ground running at the start of next year."
Senators head coach D.J. Smith, whose team finished eight points back of the Montreal Canadiens for the North's fourth and final playoff spot, said it's easy to question how things might have played out with a few more saves early or if some of his peach-fuzzed players had supplanted established teammates sooner.
"But I think the right way to look at it is we learned a real good lesson," he said. "If you don't play as a team and if everyone's not all-in at the same time, and you don't do all the right things, it can get away from you, and get away from you real quick.
"Our team got better, our young guys got to play a lot and they got better, so I think we're in a good spot."
Parker Kelly scored in his NHL debut for Ottawa (23-28-5), while Nikita Zaitsev added a goal and an assist. Filip Gustavsson stopped 30 shots as the Senators blew a 3-1 lead before securing a feel-good victory against their provincial rivals to close out the schedule 4-4-1 against Toronto.
"They're going to be a very good team," Leafs captain John Tavares said. "You can see what's coming there and what they're building towards."
Ottawa dropped a 6-1 decision to the Flames in Calgary on Sunday, but improved to 10-3-1 over its last 14 contests to wrap up a promising run ahead to the 2021-22 campaign.
Leafs star Mitch Marner turned the puck over off the faceoff at the start overtime to Brady Tkachuk, who in turn fed Norris to bag his 17th.
"What a way to end the season," Norris said. "We played so well down the stretch. That's very exciting.
"We want to carry that into next year."
Auston Matthews found the back of the net for a league-leading 41st time for Toronto (35-13-7), while Jake Muzzin, with a goal and an assist, and Tavares also scored.
Frederik Andersen made 24 saves in his return to the lineup following an eight-week injury absence for the Leafs, who clinched the North Division's No. 1 seed Saturday and were sluggish most of this night in a game that meant very little.
"No life, no energy," Muzzin said. "We battled a little bit, but not good enough."
Toronto closes out its regular-season schedule Friday in Winnipeg against the Jets before opening the playoffs against Montreal next week -- the first post-season meeting between the Original Six rivals since 1979.
"Our guys know what's around the corner here and nobody wants to go into it too banged up," Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "You're a little shy on everything that you're doing and you're just not quite into it mentally.
"But it's a 56-game season and we're only through 55."
Andersen played in the NHL for the first time since March 19 because of an injury "around" one of his knees that cost him 23 games. The 31-year-old made two AHL appearances as part of a conditioning stint to get back up to speed.
"I felt really good," Andersen said. "Just some weird plays and unfortunate bounces."
Despite having a fairly quite night, Matthews tied the game with 2:40 left in the third period before Norris won it.
The home side opened the scoring with 68 seconds left in the first when Zaitsev's shot found its way through a screen and off Andersen's far post for the former Toronto blue-liner's fourth.
The Leafs got even at 6:01 of the second when Muzzin's one-timer also chimed in off iron for his fourth, and just the visitors' fifth power-play goal since March 11.
Marner hit the crossbar on a short-handed chance, but Brown -- another former Leaf -- found the range later in the period with Ottawa killing a penalty when he scored his league-topping fifth shorthanded goal at 9:07.
"They play a good game," Muzzin said of the Senators. "You've got to be sharp and ready."
Kelly then opened his NHL account at 12:12 when he banked a shot off Andersen moments after getting rocked along the boards. The undrafted free-agent forward, who played four seasons with the Western Hockey League's Prince Albert Raiders before signing with Ottawa in 2017, became the sixth Senators rookie to score his first NHL goal in 2021.
"This is crazy," Kelly said. "Very blessed to have gotten an opportunity."
The high-energy Camrose, Alta., native lined up against Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza on his first shift -- and had to try hard not to pinch himself.
"You grow up watching guys like that," Kelly said. "It's hard not to get star struck out there, but at the end of the day you're just playing a game of hockey, and they're trying to do the same."
The Leafs got back within one with 3:31 left in the second when Tavares took a pass from Nylander, who extended his point streak to eight games, and beat Gustavsson for his 19th to set up an eventful final act to the Senators' season.
"It's nice to win the last one ... go out on a good note," Brown said. "I think us and the city of Ottawa have a lot to look forward to."
They'll also wish they had a little more runway in 2021.