PITTSBURGH — Bobby Ryan was standing right beside the net, helplessly watching Chris Kunitz beat Craig Anderson to end the Ottawa Senators' season in double overtime of the Eastern Conference final. It all felt like it was happening in slow motion, the hopes of a team that was never supposed to get this far suddenly dashed.
"It's just utter disbelief watching that go in the net," Ryan said after the 3-2 defeat on Thursday night.
The Sens were that close to defying the odds all the way to the Stanley Cup final, that close to upending the defending champs, that close to denying Sidney Crosby one more chance at another ring. Few could have imagined such a thing at training camp or even before the start of the post-season for that matter.
Ottawa was hardly a sure thing to even make the playoffs, let alone win two rounds and push the Penguins to double overtime of Game 7.
"I think that we did everything we could in our power and at the end of the day it could've gone either way, but they did it for a little bit longer than we did and a little bit better," Erik Karlsson said after a 37-minute performance.
Karlsson was reason No. 1 for the Sens' stunning spring success.
After an already brilliant regular season, which should earn him a third Norris trophy, the Ottawa captain just seemed to hit another level. He drove the Senators past Boston in the first round with six assists, added two goals and five more assists in the second round against New York and while slowed somewhat against Pittsburgh, still came up with five assists — including set-ups of Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel in Game 7.
The 26-year-old did it all through injury.
Then there was Anderson, the Game 6 hero who almost lifted his team back to the Cup final for the first time since 2007. He was sensational again with 39 stops in Game 7.
The Sens, more broadly, became the kind of team Guy Boucher envisioned when he took over as head coach one year ago. They won by playing it close, blocking shots, and crowding the neutral zone. Defence was their means to nearly winning the Atlantic Division, to slipping past the Bruins and Rangers and nearly toppling the Penguins.
It was a formula that left little margin for error and one that made Ottawa such an unlikely conference finalist. Whether it's sustainable into the future is largely in question, but Ryan thought the deep drive proved something to "naysayers" and "critics."
"I don't think we proved anything to ourselves," said the 30-year-old Ryan, eager to return to Ottawa after the bitter defeat. "We had a tremendous amount of belief in ourselves that we deserved every game that we got to play this late into May. Maybe we proved some things to the hockey world, but one shot away."
This was a group that seemed to really believe in what it was doing and one pulled together by circumstance beyond the rink. Whether it was Anderson's inspiring play through a taxing personal ordeal — with wife Nicholle battling cancer — or Clarke MacArthur's determination to return from concussion troubles, the Sens had plenty to help them bond.
Anderson, tellingly, said he'd remember this team for the "love" he felt from teammates.
Resilience was apparent in the group throughout the playoffs and again in Game 7 when they rallied twice to tie the Pens — 20 seconds after Kunitz opened the scoring and then again late in regulation. The Sens were determined to play with no regrets after a striking 7-0 loss in Game 5.
Ryan described the atmosphere in the visiting dressing room at PPG Paints Arena as "heartbreaking" in the immediate aftermath of defeat. The business side of the game meant change was coming, he said, though the guts of the roster should remain intact with no key free agents beyond Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Ryan Dzingel — both are whom are restricted.
Delivering a soliloquy of sorts after the loss, Karlsson spoke calmly of coming so close and yet remaining so far. He hoped his team would return to this point again (and perhaps beyond) by learning from the deepest run for Ottawa since Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza were franchise cornerstones and Ray Emery was still tending goal.
That meant finding an extra step when June was near, finding another gear as Kunitz and the Pens had in their chase for consecutive Cups.
There is hope for the Senators moving forward with Karlsson leading a relatively young core, Anderson among the best at his position, and promising prospects like Colin White and Thomas Chabot on the way. Another year like this is unlikely though, what with emotion it brought and difficulty of repeating such magic one more time.
"We weren't ready for it to end," Ryan said. "But they came up one shot better."
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press