The Long And Winding Road
The Ottawa Senators sure have reasons to feel good about themselves today.
They wiped out the defending Stanley Cup champions from Tampa Bay in five games. They did it with youngster Ray Emery in goal and Dominik Hasek barely a footnote. They got through the series without serious injuries, received strong performances from most of their key players and even saw star defenceman Wade Redden deal with the death of his mother during the competition in a classy, impressive manner.
There is a heart beating within this Sens team that may make it different from the Ottawa squads that have fallen short in the post-season previously.
But here's the hard part. There's still a long, long, long way to go for the Sens in a season in which anything other than winning it all will be a disappointment.
For starters, barring turnarounds by Montreal and Philly, it appears Ottawa will have to defeat two of Buffalo, New Jersey and Carolina just to get out of the east.
Those will be two very tough playoff encounters.
Then, the Sens will have to face a battle-hardened team from the west, possibly the sandpaper-like Flames or the multi-talented Sharks.
Beating the defending champs was just a quarter-step to the Stanley Cup and likely the easiest step. More than ever, this is a hockey tournament that is becoming excruciatingly difficult to win.
With the Bolts out, this spring will mark the seventh straight season a different team will walk away as champion.
Winning two straight, something done once in the NHL over the past 15 years, is starting to look like it will be a next-to-impossible feat in the new salary cap era.
Take Tampa. While the picture is distorted somewhat by the lockout that wiped out the season between the Lightning's Cup win and their brief playoff effort this spring, the fact is that Tampa returned as nothing nearly as good as the team that won it all in '04.
The trio of Brad Richards, Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, with Lecavalier and St. Louis tied up under rich new contracts, wasn't as a good. Neither was the goaltending, with Nikolai Khabibulin lost to Chicago (four years, $27 million) as a free agent.
"With Nik, and I say this very candidly, Nik turned into a banker," said outspoken coach John Tortorella. "I don't think he was very excited about playing for us again and I don't think Nik was the answer for us."
With the extra year off, Dave Andreychuk was too old to serve as the club's leader, and useful working parts like Jassen Cullimore were lost as well, giving the team a lot less sandpaper.
Now, the Lightning face very difficult cap choices over the future of Richards, who can go to arbitration and is one year away from being unrestricted, as well as defenceman Pavel Kubina and arbitration eligible winger Ruslan Fedotenko. Keeping all three will be tough, particularly if the club has any hope of seriously bolstering itself between the pipes. Sure, maybe Tampa could pry Evgeni Nabokov and his $5 million salary out of San Jose, but with $27 million already committed to 11 players and Richards to sign, it starts getting tight again in a hurry for GM Jay Feaster.
This is a team, quite frankly, that is unlikely to challenge again for the Cup for another two to three seasons at the earliest.
The moral of the Tampa story is that you win it while you can, and that's something the Sens should take very seriously.
Who knows if the club will be able to retain any or all of Redden, Zdeno Chara and Martin Havlat?
More important, at this moment, who cares?
You go for it within reasonable limits while the chance is there knowing full well the nature of the NHL system is going to make repeat efforts very, very difficult.