- E.J. Hradek, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In each of the last two playoff campaigns, a Canadian team has found its way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
This year, with five of the six Canadian-based teams eliminated, the Red and White nation turns its Cup-hungry eyes to its capital city. And, this time, Canada's hockey crazies might not be disappointed.
The Ottawa Senators, a playoff failure for nearly a decade, are looking very much like the real thing after finishing off the New Jersey Devils with an impressive 3-2 win at Continental Airlines Arena in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
After easily eliminating the young and talented Penguins and the experienced and savvy Devils in successive five-game series, the Senators seem ready for any challengers.
"I feel good about our chances," Senators head coach Bryan Murray said when asked about the vibe he's getting from his team. "I know we're only halfway there and I know that whoever we get next will be very tough, but I'm getting to feel very good about our team."
He should feel good. Through the first two rounds, the Senators have played as well as anyone in the mix for the Cup. Quite simply, they've been too fast, too physical and too hungry for either the Penguins or Devils.
And, while they still have a lot of skill on their roster, the Senators are, by design, a little different animal this spring.
"After the playoffs last year [they were eliminated by the Sabres in the second round], we wanted to take a different approach," Murray said. "We wanted to be a more blue-collar, hard-working team. Really, the guys have bought in to that. We have some great leaders in that room, and they've made demands on the team that have made us better."
The Devils noticed the difference.
"They work smarter," Devils right wing Brian Gionta said. "They're more patient. They don't make as many mistakes as they used to, and they don't give you as much to go on."
"I was surprised how good they were defensively," added New Jersey sophomore sniper Zach Parise. "They kept us out of the middle and they did a good job of converting their scoring chances."
Senators defenseman Wade Redden, who has endured a lot of playoff pain since arriving in Ottawa in 1996, feels a difference with this team.
"I think we're really competing for each other," he said. "I think our mental toughness is better than it has been in the past. I think we have committed ourselves to play a different type of game. This time of year, talent doesn't beat hard work. I think we've learned that.
"We're doing the little things, and everyone is really playing together. Right now, this is a total team effort."
Captain Daniel Alfredsson, who led the charge in just about every area of the game against the Devils, believes the team also benefited from a string of midseason injuries that left the Senators with no choice but to play a more defensive game.
"We had to tighten up," said Alfredsson, who netted the eventual series-clincher in Game 5. "We had no choice. I think that has carried over into the playoffs."
On Saturday night, as Alfredsson and his team celebrated their second-round victory in the visitors' dressing room, a hearty gang of Senators fans assembled near the Zamboni entrance. The boisterous bunch cheered and sang the happy song of victory. And they waved a good-sized Canadian flag for their boys.
With five of the six Canadian teams gone fishing for the summer, the Senators will carry a nation's dream into hockey's final four. After years of heartbreak, they seem ready and eager for the opportunity.
This likely was the final Devils game at Continental Airlines Arena. The team is scheduled to move into a new arena in Newark next spring. ... This might also have been Scott Gomez's final game with the Devils. He can be a free agent July 1, and he plans on testing the open market. If it was his last game in Jersey, Gomez went out with a bang. He scored both Devils goals, won 73 percent of his faceoffs and finished a plus-2 on the night. ... New Jersey GM/interim head coach Lou Lamoriello says he will not return to the bench next season. Of course, he did say that last season. Lamoriello saod he has no regrets about his decision to fire Claude Julien with three games remaining in the regular season. "I would do it all over again, regardless of the result," Lamoriello said.
With five of the six Canadian-based teams eliminated, the Red and White nation turns it Cup-hungry eyes to the Senators.