The Ottawa Senators gathered at Scotiabank Place on Saturday to clean out their lockers and reflect on a season had to be considered a success despite its sour ending.
A tough, skilled and resilient Anaheim Ducks team made short work of the Senators in five games, and for several players, a bitter taste remains.
"This has been the hardest [playoff defeat] yet," said defenceman Chris Phillips. "At the same time I had more fun, and going to the final was an unbelievable experience. You get that close and you get higher and higher it makes for a harder fall, for sure."
But Ottawa can undoubtedly take pride in a season that sawits hot second-half of the season carry them to a 48-25-9 record overall.
The Senators rode that momentum through the first three rounds of the playoffs, historically a time when they've faltered, and advanced to their first Stanley Cup final since their return to the league in 1992.
"For us to sit around and talk about it definitely makes you appreciate it a little more what we went through," said centre Jason Spezza. "It's still pretty fresh and it wasn't too long ago that we lost —it is still a little but upsetting, but we're proud of each other."
While memories of what could have been may haunt the team throughout the offseason, many of the Senators will have to find time to focus on contract negotiations.
Head coach Bryan Murray and general manager John Muckler are undoubtedly at the top of that list.
Murray is now officially without a contract, but Muckler has said that negotiations are already underway that would see the native of nearby Shawville, Que., return to his post behind the Senators bench next season.
"He wants to be here, we want him to be here," Muckler said, "and when two people want the same thing it usually works out."
That decision sat well with many of the players.
"He had a lot to do with [our success]," captain Daniel Alfredsson said Saturday. "I hope he stays around."
Muckler, whohas a year remaining on his contract, dismissed any notions of retiring.
"I'm having too much fun,"hesaid.
Muckler, 73,may be having fun, but he'll also have plenty of work to get done with several key players: Starting goaltender Ray Emery and centre Chris Kelly are restricted free agents, while centres Mike Comrie and Dean McAmmond and defenceman Tom Preissing are unrestricted free agents.
With a young roster rich in talent, Mucklersaid he isn'tanticipating "too many changes. I think we have the ability to get better from within and everyone just needs to play a little better."
The new season for Ottawa's front office has already begun. Muckler will try to bolster the Senators' roster at the June 22-23 draft in Columbus, Ohio.