Senators evolve, steal Devils' resolve

OTTAWA -- The New Jersey Devils have only themselves to blame for this.

Here they sit, one game away from their third trip to the Stanley Cup finals in the last four years, but with an Ottawa Senators team that is mushrooming into a formidable opponent before their eyes.

The Devils, as much as anyone, are responsible for these Senators. It goes back to the earliest days of Ottawa coach Jacques Martin's tenure when he used to watch tapes of the 1995 Stanley Cup champion Devils and marvel at their team play.

The Senators were still last in the league back then, a sad-sack bunch that was once labeled by a national publication as the worst professional sports franchise in existence.

Martin culled ideas and strategies, tactics and tendencies from those Devils teams and slowly introduced them to his Senators.

Now these Devils have pushed these Senators, given them more lessons, made a young team look at itself like it never has before, made it search inside behind doors that had never been opened.

These Devils, laden with Cup winners and playoff veterans, have been showing the Senators what it takes to win at this time of year. The Senators have been paying attention.

Too much, maybe, for the Devils' good.

Now, after having the Senators down 3-1 in the Eastern Conference final, the Devils find themselves tied and faced with a Game 7, a game which will be the most anticipated sporting event in Ottawa sports history.

It will be against a Senators team which has learned hard lessons, facing elimination the last two games and winning in that situation for the first time. Spurred on by an inspirational speech before Game 5 from assistant coach Roger Neilson, who is battling cancer, these Senators are heeding his words and doing their best not to let a chance to go to the final slip away.

"It's funny," said Senators defenseman Chris Phillips, who scored the winner in Game 6 Wednesday night to force tonight's showdown. "When you look back at the last few years when we have been eliminated and you come in next year and say you know what it takes, I don't think we could honestly answer back then.

"Now that we know what it really does take ... it takes every guy leaving everything out there on the ice. You can't take one shift off, it could cost you the game, the series, the season.

"There's no question even when we were down 3-1, there was not one guy in our dressing room or organization that had counted ourselves out. Obviously we still have a big task in front of us with Game 7."

This Senators team finally gets it.

"We've got the momentum," said standout winger Marian Hossa, the embodiment of the Senators' playoff learning curve. "We're definitely playing smarter hockey now."

Hossa has been the Senators' best player night in and night out. He hasn't scored in this series, but he has battled much of the time against Devils veteran defenseman Scott Stevens in a physical, punishing matching of wills. Hossa has refused to yield despite having his knee tweaked in Game 5. Hossa finally broke by Stevens in the overtime of Game 6, shoveling the puck in front to set up Phillips' goal, his second assist of the night in Ottawa's 2-1 win.

The Stevens-Hossa confrontation is typical of that between the clubs and sums up what this Game 7 is all about.

The veteran who has been there, as proud and tough as they come, trying to hang onto what he has earned by putting his heart and passion on the line year after year, trying to keep it out of reach of the strong, emerging star who has figured out he has the power to take it away.

The Senators have learned from previous disappointments. Last year, they lost a Game 7 to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round, blowing a 3-2 series lead and bowing out meekly in the final game.

"In that game, maybe we got a little too excited and worked up," said Senators defenseman Wade Redden. "We have to go out and do the same things we have been doing (against the Devils).

"The things we've done best are getting pucks behind them and forechecking hard. That's tough for any defense to deal with. If we keep the pressure on, keep forcing them, it bodes well for us."

The Devils, with their patient resolve, have forced the Senators to evolve. The Senators face another elimination tonight.

"A lot of guys here have never got this far," said Redden. "We have to look at the position we're in and how close we are to getting to the next level. I think we've done that. There's still a long way to go, but you have to seize the moment when it's there."

They do so now after looking inside themselves and, for the first time, liking what they have seen.

Chris Stevenson of the Ottawa Sun is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.