- Chris Stevenson
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OTTAWA -- Jeff Friesen knows what to expect, even if nobody else does.
"My buddy said to me, 'You're going to get booed,'" said the New Jersey Devils forward, who returns Saturday night to the city where he crushed the Stanley Cup dreams of a young franchise and its fans.
Friesen scored a goal with about two minutes left in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final at Ottawa's Corel Centre on May 23, a goal that ended the Senators deepest march into the playoffs and propelled the Devils on to the final. They won the Cup over the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
The young Senators, once again, were left with nothing but another lesson.
Now the two teams meet Saturday night at the Corel Centre for the first time since.
"These are big games," said Senators goaltender Patrick Lalime, who will start. "What happened last year is in the back of everybody's mind. And it's time for us to turn things around. The last few games, we've had our good times and our bad times. We need to be better for a whole game."
The Senators were picked by just about everybody to put last spring's disappointment to good use as motivation and emerge as Stanley Cup champions this time around.
It hasn't quite worked that way so far.
The Senators (5-3-2-1) are winless in four games (0-2-2) and sit in eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
The Senators haven't come close to hitting their form of last year. They have struggled with uncharacteristic turnovers and haven't played their usual air-tight defense. Their penalty killing, usually a strong point, has been weak (23rd in the league) and has been hurt by the departure of free agent Magnus Arvedson and the injury to forward Mike Fisher (elbow surgery; out until December).
Senators coach Jacques Martin put the blame for some of the Senators' early-season struggles on "intellectual arrogance," on the part of some of his players.
"Sometimes you get to the point where you think you know it all," said Martin. "Look, when you stop learning is when you stop getting better. You always have to be willing to listen to get better."
"We have to have more desperation, more intensity," said Martin. "We're going to have be better (Saturday) night than we were (Thursday) night. When you play the Devils, chances are tough to come by. We have to use our speed and quickness. There's no room for fancy plays against them. They protect the middle of the ice. They are probably the best team in the league at protecting the middle of the ice. You have to convince yourself your best chances are going to come on rebound or shots off the wall.
"The give-and-go game has to be primed."
The Senators showed some sparks in Thursday night's 3-3 tie with the Edmonton Oilers, showing some jump. But they still blew a 3-1 second-period lead and had to settle for just a point. Have they turned a corner? Saturday night's game will help answer that question.
"When it's 3-1, we need to play like it's 1-1," said Lalime. "We need to get the next goal and be more hungry."
Things didn't start out that much better for the Devils (6-3-2-0).
The defending Stanley Cup champions have been better lately, but they started the defense of their championship by winning just one of their first five games and two of their first seven. They have since reeled off four straight wins before Friday's 1-1 tie at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs to pull themselves up into seventh place in the Eastern Conference.
Friesen said Saturday night's meeting will bring back some good memories, though for a short while he thought the Corel Centre might become his own chamber or horrors.
"It will be weird," he said of returning. "Obviously, that's a date you circle. There was so much pressure in that game. I remember I came into the zone, the puck got knocked off my stick and we got scored on. I thought, 'What did I just do?' Then the exact opposite happened and I scored the goal to put us in the finals against my old team, the Mighty Ducks. That will be a building I will remember for that reason. That whole series was great."
Great, indeed. The Senators rallied from being down 3-1 in the series, sparked by an emotional pregame speech by the late Roger Neilson. The Senators assistant coach was in the final days of his battle with cancer and implored the Senators before Game 5 not to waste the chances life presents. The Senators won that one and Game 6 in overtime back in New Jersey on a goal by defenseman Chris Phillips.
"It's not like if we win (Saturday night) it's going to erase all those memories," said Phillips. "I think everybody in this room wishes that this was Game 7 coming up and we could play it all over again. We all want that game back. It's definitely something that's fresh in our minds. We win that game and we are going to the finals. We're a team that's trying to get back on track and a game like this might help us."
Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.