Tuesday April 29th, 2008

That loud crash you just heard was the window of opportunity slamming on the Ottawa Senators.

Maybe the Senators, who face elimination in Game 4 of their first-round series against Pittsburgh, won't be known as the best team never to win the Stanley Cup. There is, of course, stiff competition for this dubious honor. And maybe the conceit of best-team-never overrates them between 2003 and 2008. Even in the five-year periods that are generally open to most talented teams, no matter the sport, Ottawa always has had a fatal flaw, be it in goaltending or grit or speed or system. There was always something with this franchise in one of the NHL's smallest cities, Hamlet in the hamlet.

For a team that started to slowly unravel after its 15-2 start last autumn, the current problems are familiar -- goaltending and playoff moxie and yes, injuries -- but for the first time they signal something terminal for this group.

Several Eastern Conference rivals have surpassed Ottawa. Pittsburgh, which has mostly had its way in the first three games, has zoomed by. Montreal, which used to be intimidated by Ottawa's high-end skill, has emerged as a coming team. You can make the same argument for the Washington Capitals, even with their balky defense. And given the Mike Richards-Jeff Carter-Braydon Coburn axis in Philadelphia, it is not a stretch to suggest that the flawed Flyers, in one amazing bounce-back season, have at least pulled even.

In any case, those four teams clearly are in ascendance. Ottawa seems tapped out. In a best-case scenario the Senators can be a team that hangs around on the fringes of the playoffs, engaged in an annual chase for some of the bottom few playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. In a worst-case scenario Ottawa is the new Tampa Bay.

Think about the similarities: three well-paid, high-end forwards (at least until the Lightning moved Brad Richards to Dallas at the trading deadline); ongoing goaltending issues; a name defenseman (Dan Boyle in Tampa Bay, Chris Phillips in Ottawa), and a talent gap in many key areas.

Pop quiz time: Which is the scarier number -- the one goal that Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza have between them in their past eight playoff games (five in the 2007 Stanley Cup Final against Anaheim and three against the Pens this year) or the $80 million that Ottawa has committed to the pair for the next five seasons?

The Senators chose to reward hockey talent, not playoff performance, with long-term deals. In the case of the 24-year-old Spezza, there might be time to turn him into a more reliable, determined center, but Heatley, now 27 and a distinguished goal scorer, seems set in stone. The two straight 50-goal seasons the left winger had after the lockout were notable, but his shrinking play in the playoffs is hardly the stuff of legends -- or long-term contracts.

General manager/coach Bryan Murray will be watching Game 4 to gauge the level of commitment, which is fine, of course, if a little tardy. In fact, Murray already knows everything he needs to know about the character of a team he has coached to the Cup final last season and the past seven weeks of this year after he fired John Paddock.

There will be changes, obviously. Wade Redden, the defenseman whom Ottawa preferred to keep over Zdeno Chara when both became free agents two summers ago, likely will sign elsewhere. The players obtained from Carolina in February -- forward Cory Stillman and defenseman Mike Commodore -- surely will be gone. Versatile forward Chris Kelly, who has good instincts and so-so hands, will be another unrestricted free agent who likely walks. The Senators might buy out the final two years of goaltender Ray Emery's contract, let goalie Martin Gerber stay for the final year of his deal and hope that Brian Elliott, who had a mostly disappointing season in the minors, can make the jump into a backup or even a starting role.

In any case, Ottawa can't keep throwing money at goaltending. But the bigger question: Will Murray be willing to trade one of his high-end players, take a rebuilding hit now and allow his team to be a contender within, say, three years? Or will he ride it out with a playoff bubble team that will have to part the Red Sea in order to challenge for a Cup again?

The Senators were close last year before the Anaheim Ducks physically dominated and exposed Spezza and Heatley in the final. But in retrospect the best shot for a championship was 2003, when the Senators lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals at home against New Jersey. (The Devils, solid but hardly overwhelming, would beat Anaheim in a desultory seven games for the Cup.) You couldn't have guessed at the time, but Jeff Friesen's short-side goal against Ottawa's Patrick Lalime in the final three minutes of that Game 7 might have been the first note of a requiem.

This was a grand franchise, a team that was as dazzling on many nights as the Penguins are now. But time erodes everything, including once nascent hockey dynasties. The window is shut. Until Murray overhauls the Senators, it will be awfully stuffy in Canada's capital.

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