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Lowered expectations, higher hopes for Senators heading into NHL season

The Canadian Press
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Ottawa Senators goaltender Ray Emery reacts to Buffalo Sabres Jason Pominville\'s overtime goal in game five of the Eastern Conference semi-final in Ottawa May 13, 2006. (CP PHOTO ARCHIVE/Tom Hanson) Author: The Hockey News

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Lowered expectations, higher hopes for Senators heading into NHL season

The Canadian Press
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After the off-season departure of several key players, those expectations have been dialled back, if only slightly, and that suits the Senators just fine since it may also make life easier for them when the regular season opens off next week.

"Yeah, maybe the pressure, the expectations and that are a little less and that may help down the stretch," said centre Mike Fisher, who's been thrust into a bigger role after No. 2 centre Bryan Smolinski was traded away during the off-season - one of several summer moves that shook up Ottawa's roster.

Last year, the Senators were the pick of many to win the Stanley Cup in the more skating-and skill-oriented NHL, but it was an all-too-familiar story. They cruised through the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs.

That signalled the exit of players like Smolinski, Martin Havlat, Zdeno Chara, Dominik Hasek, Brian Pothier and Vaclav Varada.

In came new, if lesser-heralded, faces like Martin Gerber, Joe Corvo, Tom Preissing and Dean McAmmond.

The result? A more "blue-collar" team that considers itself deeper and better suited for success in the long run, or so the Senators hope when they open the season with back-to-back games against the Maple Leafs starting Wednesday at Toronto.

"I think overall we're going to be a better team, (looking) towards the playoffs," Fisher said. "Last year, a lot of people were picking us to go all the way and that was fine, but we think we're much better all around and we think we've got a shot.

"There are a lot of good teams, but we feel we can compete and learn from last year and be better."

Playing as a third-line checking centre last year, Fisher had career highs in goals (22), assists (22) and points (44).

Looking for additional scoring, especially since highly touted prospect Alexei Kaigorodov has so far shown few signs of being a capable contributor in the NHL and may wind up back in Russia, the Senators paired Fisher with Daniel Alfredsson and Peter Schaefer and the unit has been on a torrid pace in pre-season.

That gives the Senators a second scoring line in addition to their offensive dynamic duo of Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley, who combined for 193 points last season.

Likewise, players such as Chris Neil, one of just three NHLers to record at least 15 goals and 150 penalty minutes last season (Brenden Morrow and Sean Avery being the others), and Antoine Vermette, who scored 21 goals last season in his second year, are also being giving more opportunity to contribute in different ways. Even Spezza, who's been knocked for having defensive shortcomings, has been given a role as a penalty killer.

"We've lost a couple of key guys off last year's team, so now there's going to be some added responsibility to other guys to do a few more things, whether it's me killing penalties or Fish playing the power play," Spezza said. "Everyone's expected to do different things. I think it'll be good for the team and it'll put a lot of the onus on us and that's how it should be."

That same "by-committee" approach has extended to the defence corps, which has to overcome the defection of Chara, a former Norris Trophy finalist, to Boston.

Although it hasn't helped that Corvo, signed from Los Angeles to help fill the void left by Chara's departure, suffered a fractured foot while blocking a shot in pre-season and is out for the first few weeks of the regular season, they've got depth and are borrowing a page from a couple of teams that had success last year by turning to a defence based on mobility and puck movement.

Preissing arrived from San Jose off of a career-best season and veteran Jamie Allison arrived to join returnees Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, Andrej Meszaros, Anton Volchenkov and utility man Christoph Schubert.

"We've got a good corps, they move the puck really well and in the new game that's key," Spezza said. "If you look at a team like Buffalo and teams like Carolina that did well last year, they had that puck-moving defence corps and we've got something very similar to that now. I think it's going to be an advantage for us."

In goal, the Senators' situation shapes up more stable than it did a year ago when Hasek was the undisputed No. 1.

The Senators went out and inked Martin Gerber to a US$11.1-million, three-year deal to take over the role after Gerber went 38-14-6 during the regular season with Carolina last year.

The 32-year-old faces competition from Ray Emery, who proved he could play on a full-time basis after stepping in when Hasek went down last season with an injury.

Emery has looked the steadier of the two goalies during the pre-season, although Gerber has been getting better with each appearance and the Senators expect their goaltending to be dependable.

Senators coach Bryan Murray was the general manager in Anaheim when Gerber was brought there and thinks he's a good bet to regain the form Gerber showed before being bumped by Cam Ward in the Hurricanes' run to the Stanley Cup.

"I hope he's a top goalie," Murray said. "When he was in Anaheim, he was a very good goalie."

If many observers felt that last year may have been the Senators' best shot at success since salary cap restrictions make keeping the core of a team together, this revamped edition of the Senators are hoping to prove that theory wrong.

"We're a fairly young team so other guys are stepping up and playing well," Fisher said. "We're excited to get going and see what we can do this year."

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Lowered expectations, higher hopes for Senators heading into NHL season