Unlike most other recent Cup finalists, deeply talented Ottawa is showing no ill effects from its extended spring
THE MOST insidious NHL malady is the Stanley Cup hangover, which afflicts the champagne-drenched celebrants and the vanquished alike. The lingering symptoms: lethargy, dizziness from craning necks as opponents break out three-on-two, shortness of breathtaking plays.
Since the Red Wings and the Hurricanes played for the Cup in 2002, no finalist has won even a round in the next year's playoffs. Four of the eight finalists, including both of those from '06--Carolina and Edmonton—didn't even qualify for the postseason. All teams are susceptible to the hangover because of the physical and emotional grind of a sport that opens training camps after Labor Day and extends into June, but each case has its peculiarities. The latest victim, defending champion Anaheim (7-8-3 through Monday), has been undermined by the semiretirements of Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne, injuries and perhaps extended jet lag after opening its season in London. Says Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray, who was the Ducks' G.M. when they went from Game 7 of the '03 final to 12th in the conference the next season, "The Stanley Cup hangover is a very real animal."
After losing in the finals last spring, the Senators tried to inoculate themselves by having new head coach John Paddock call each player in July to warn about becoming complacent. Ottawa, which was 14--2 through Monday, clearly heard the message. The Senators led the NHL in goal differential and shorthanded goals, and new No. 1 netminder Martin Gerber ranked fourth with a .943 save percentage. Ottawa has picked up where it left off—not from its five-game loss in the finals but from its 15-game playoff stroll to the Eastern Conference championship.
"The experience of the finals was new to them, and I think it made them hungrier," says Paddock, an Ottawa assistant coach last season. "If you're too young or too old, maybe it doesn't work, but this team was of an age when you should still be hungry. Most guys are in their mid-to-late 20s, except for [34-year-old captain Daniel Alfredsson]. And they knew they'd mostly be staying together."
Among finalists of the past five years, the Senators have had the strongest antidote to the Stanley Cup hangover: talent. Unlike Cinderella Edmonton or a team such as the 2004 Cup-winning Lightning, which lacked complements to its top players, Ottawa is deep. Former G.M. John Muckler and Murray locked up many of the team's best players with long-term deals, including left wing Dany Heatley, center Jason Spezza, defenseman Chris Phillips, second-line center Mike Fisher and the redoubtable Alfredsson, a right wing who had 13 goals and 10 assists in 16 games to lead the team in scoring. "I grade on a scale of one to seven," says Senators assistant G.M. Tim Murray, "and last year [when he worked for the Rangers], I'd be [in the press box] writing 'five,' 'six,' 'six' and thinking, Damn, how can one team have so many impact players?"
For Ottawa this season is about unfinished business. "It's just a mental approach," Alfredsson says. "To me, if someone had said you're going to have a Stanley Cup hangover, I'd have said, 'Nonsense.'"
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