A season that began with such promise ended Wednesday night in utter failure.
The Ottawa Senators dropped a 3-1 decision to the Pittsburgh Penguins on home ice, as the capital club was swept out of the playoffs after losing all four games of their Eastern Conference quarter-final.
Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby had a goal and an assist on the night to send the Senators packing from the post-season.
"It feels great. It's a pretty different situation from last year. We responded well in the first round. This is our first series win. We played hard the last four games and we earned it, so it feels good," Crosby told reporters.
While the Penguins advance to the conference semifinals, the Senators suffer the humiliation of bowing out in the first round, a year after the team reached the Stanley Cup finals.
Pittsburgh dominated the series from beginning to end, sweet revenge for a club that was dumped out of the first round in the playoffs a season ago by Ottawa. The Penguins also recorded their first four-game playoff sweep since winning four straight against the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1992 Stanley Cup finals.
As for Ottawa, fans and the media will be asking if a change at the top is needed. But club owner Eugene Melnyk told Hockey Night in Canada during the second intermission of Wednesday's game that general manager Bryan Murray, who has doubled as head coach since firing John Paddock in late February, will be back next season.
Melnyk says Murray will stay
"Bryan stepped up to the plate," Melnyk said. "That's the way you gotta look at it. There had to be a change made, and I came to Bryan and asked him if he wanted to take it on both jobs.
"He's a stand-up guy with tremendous experience, and he stepped in. He didn't have to, and I absolutely assured him that win, lose or draw, he's around next season and not to worry about it."
Ottawa began the regular season with an astonishing 15-2 record and sat atop the Eastern Conference standings with a commanding lead in January, but the club struggled during the second half of the schedule.
The Senators won just 18 of their final 48 games, coping with a rash of injuries, a goalie controversy that festered for weeks and disrupted the team's chemistry, and a coaching change late in the campaign.
Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson, who missed the last few games of the regular season and the first two of this series due to injury, was at a loss for words when asked after the game by Hockey Night in Canada to explain the reason behind the Senators' remarkable collapse.
"I'm trying to figure it out myself, honestly. It's tough to put a finger on it. It was just a downward spiral and we tried. We had a lot of meetings, we talked … but we couldn't get it going," said Alfredsson, who revealed he was playing with a torn MCL.
With Alfredsson hobbled, the Senators' best offensive players had to produce, but they fell flat, instead. Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza were unable to score in the series.
"We had our chances and we didn't score goals.… I only had one assist. I am disappointed in myself. I felt like I was spinning my tires. We know we're going to take the blame. We hear about it when we win. We know we're going to hear about it now," said Spezza.
For a team facing elimination squarely in the face, the Senators were outshot 34-22 on the night, played with an alarming lack of urgency right from the opening faceoff.
Senators defenceman Andrej Meszaros put his team down early when he picked up an interference after only 1:24, and Ottawa managed only five shots in the opening 20 minutes — compared to Pittsburgh's 14.
Couldn't control the puck
After a scoreless opening frame, the Penguins broke the deadlock early in the second period with a power-play goals. Pittsburgh was buzzing around the Ottawa net and Evgeni Malkin forced a great pad save out of Martin Gerber, but the Ottawa goalie couldn't control the puck and the Penguins forward potted the rebound.
Ottawa fought back and levelled the affair at 10:31 when Corey Stillman scored his second goal of the playoffs following a goalmouth scramble.
The Senators momentum was short lived, however.
Tyler Kennedy fed a perfect pass to a streaking Jarkko Ruutu who broke into the Senators' zone, and the Penguins' forward shrugged off Senators defenceman Brian Lee, spun around, and then slipped a weak backhander underneath the pads of Gerber at 15:28.
Ottawa appeared to tie the score again when Antoine Vermette scored with three minutes left in the period. But the play went upstairs for video review and Vermette's goal was disallowed after it was ruled he made a distinct kicking motion to put the puck into the back of the net.
That knocked the stuffing out of Ottawa, and although the Senators outshot the Penguins in the final period, they never really tested Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Crosby scored an empty-net goal with eight seconds left in regulation to seal the win for Pittsburgh.
This may have been defenceman Wade Redden's final game in an Ottawa uniform — he becomes an unrestricted free agent in July — and he was melancholy after the loss.
"That thought crossed my mind, but looking back it's been a great time and the big picture of being here and my career so far. I definitely have mixed feelings. Losing the way we did, is the biggest thing that's on my mind right now," said Redden.