Another step toward maturation for Sens

PITTSBURGH -- A veteran hockey man earlier this week wondered what a series between this edition of the Pittsburgh Penguins and this Ottawa Senators team might look like two or three years down the road.

The implication was clear: The young Senators, a team that defines the word "plucky," simply didn’t have the goods to match up with this powerful, experienced Penguins team, as they were crushed 6-2 in Game 5 to see their season come to an abrupt end.

But down the road?

Oh, there’s lots to like about this Senators team, which has received an unexpected dose of experience these past two playoff years.

Coach Paul MacLean said that as difficult as it is to accept losing this series while being outscored 13-5 in the final two games, it reinforces the message that climbing the ladder toward a championship is hard work.

"I can tell them it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be harder, it’s going to be harder, it’s going to be harder, but I think they really got a solid lesson in what it takes to move on in the Stanley Cup playoffs," MacLean said.

"For us, it was a hard lesson to swallow the last two games here," he added. "But one thing about our group is that adversity really tends to be something that we thrive [on] and that we can take good things out of and we will take good things out of this and it will make us better."

Indeed, you have to wonder whether the team’s surprise trip to the playoffs last season coupled with a first-round victory over Montreal this season will accelerate the process of returning the Senators to Cup-contender status.

The Penguins showed the gulf that exists between where the Sens are and where they want to go remains significant. But back in 2007, when the Senators schooled a young Penguins team in the first round of the playoffs, it was a catalyst to the Penguins’ evolution. A year later, the Penguins were in the Stanley Cup finals, and a year after that, they won a Cup.

The Senators aren’t likely on that arc, but many positive pieces are in place, starting with one of the most underrated GMs in the game in Bryan Murray, and MacLean, the odds-on favorite to win the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year the second straight year he’s been nominated.

Murray’s acquisition of defenseman Marc Methot from Columbus represents a cornerstone move. Methot is a physical presence and has deceptive offensive upside, and you can imagine him lining up with defending Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson for years to come.

Up front, there will be a changing of the guard as captain Daniel Alfredsson will at some point ride gracefully into the sunset. You can make the argument that no player in the past two decades has meant as much to his franchise on and off the ice as Alfredsson has to the Senators. And anyone who thinks his legacy will in any way be marred by his candor after Game 4, when he acknowledged that it was unlikely the Senators could win three in a row against Pittsburgh, needs to give their head a shake.

"It's been a great year in terms of the group we've had, the adversity we've faced; we've become a tight group and stuck together throughout. It's been a lot of fun. I'll definitely take that with me when I think about what to do,” Alfredsson said after the game.

MacLean said he expects to sit down with Alfredsson in the coming days to talk about the season and then expects Alfredsson will decide whether he wants to give it one more go.

The fact there is so much going on with this team coupled with the Olympic Games in Sochi next winter might sway Alfredsson to return. Either way, MacLean said he expects Alfredsson to remain in some capacity with the team.

Regardless, the Sens are in good hands.

Assuming Jason Spezza can return to form after missing most of the regular season and all but the final three games of the playoffs with a back injury, he will move nicely into the seasoned veteran role and will be a fine tutor for guys such as Kyle Turris, who might have been the Sens’ best forward in this series, and youngsters Jakob Silfverberg, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Cory Conacher, Mika Zibanejad and Colin Greening. All, especially Pageau and Greening, showed flashes of having the stuff of terrific NHLers during this postseason.

Craig Anderson was pulled twice in this series but was the team’s best player in the postseason and when he was healthy during the regular season, and he seems to have found a home after a nomadic start to his career. But it will be interesting to see how quickly the Senators will want to integrate Robin Lehner into the mix vis-a-vis challenging for the No. 1 job. There are high hopes for the big Swedish netminder.

Under MacLean, the Senators have proved to be a difficult team to play against, notwithstanding the 22 goals they allowed in this series to the Penguins.

If the offensive evolution can match that of the defensive side of this team, it does make you wonder just what that kind of imaginary matchup between the current Penguins and the Senators of two or three years down the road might look like. Indeed, such a clash might be closer than this series would at first blush suggest.