BAINES: Wait till next year: Fans rise above Senators’ stormy season

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The rain pelted down, while the winds whipped across the perimeter of Canadian Tire Centre late Saturday afternoon and into Saturday night — it was probably appropriate enough given the hockey events of the previous seven months.

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The outdoor plaza was empty, there was no music playing, the $5 beer had been moved to the warmth of the Legacy Social Lounge.

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It was the final home game for what has been a huge disappointment of a season for the Ottawa Senators, who will, it seems, finish, give or take a point or two, a dozen points outside of a wild-card entry into the NHL playoffs.

It’s a huge kick to the gut for a team that thought it was there, that thought it could not only play in the post-season, but do some damage.

Like the grey skies and persistent raindrops Saturday, it has been a stormy Senators season that has seen the firing of a general manager (Pierre Dorion) and a head coach (D.J. Smith) and inconsistent, immature play from a group of players that should be far enough along to take a step ahead.

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When it rains, it pours.

It was a nice adieu Saturday, with white-gloved Lyndon Slewidge O Canada-ing another big crowd into the game.

While the turnout got a big nudge from the legion of fans supporting the visiting team — the Montreal Canadiens (cue up a big cheer for Mike Matheson, who scored the game’s opening goal, short-handed, less than 10 minutes in — Senators fans made their presence felt with a bigger cheer when their captain, Brady Tkachuk scored on the power play with a bit less than seven minutes left in the first period. Oh, and it got even louder when Montreal unsuccessfully challenged there was goaltender interference on the goal.

Yeah, Habs fans did a lot of yelling, but Sens fans had their opportunities to let loose with Woo Hoos.

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Through everything, you can’t blame the fans. The team averaged more than 17,785 fans per game, a jump of more than 1,000 from a year ago. With 19 sellouts, they’re four ahead of last season.

Sens Army has cheered the good and booed the bad.

“I appreciate the fans, I respect the fans,” Jacques Martin, whose role as interim head coach will soon end, said. “Fans pay a premier dollar to be entertained; that’s what they want.”

“The fans have been behind us, even though it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go,” defenceman Thomas Chabot said.

“When things are tough, the fans have been there for us,” Tkachuk said earlier this week, a couple of days after the home fans chanted his name. “It’s been a disappointing season. For the fans to do that, it’s pretty amazing. (I’ve got) a lot of love (for them), I very much appreciate the support.

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“You want to make people proud. People spend money to watch you play; they expect you to be at your best. I completely understand their reactions to (a 6-0 loss to Florida nine days ago) — (the loss) was unacceptable and embarrassing.”

The fan pushback against divisive, litigious owner Eugene Melnyk is a thing of the past; there’s a breath of fresh air that goes with Michael Andlauer, who bought the team last summer.

While there’s a sting that goes with another losing season, there are, at least, positive vibes. The Senators are making big strides in the community.

The Senators wrap up their season with a pair of road games — Monday against the Rangers in New York, and Tuesday in Boston against the Bruins.

“You have to keep playing as hard as you can,” Martin said. “I’m encouraged by the road trip we just came off (3-2 wins over Washington and Tampa Bay sandwiching a 2-0 loss to Florida). We had three excellent games, we gave up just six goals, two per game with a lineup that’s limited. We’ve been more physical, I think the players have more of a commitment playing away from the puck.”

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The Senators have not gotten into a playoff series since 2017. What has to happen next to end the painful playoff drought?

“It’s been a lot of years,” Chabot said. “There needs to be mindset changes in your preparation and the way you go about your summer, getting ready for the next season. We all love playing in Ottawa and want to have success here. The fans, the city, everybody deserves that. This year really made us learn a lot more about how hard it is and what it takes to win. It’s going to be a big summer for all of us.

“The season hasn’t gone the way we wanted. There are going to be nights where it’s not going to go your way, it’s about finding a way to play when the bounces don’t go your way. Stick to it, limit mistakes and give yourself a chance to win every night. The reality is making sure we get it done next year. There’s a lot that goes into that.

“(We need) a winning mindset. It’s playing the game the same way every night. We play like a team that can battle any of the top teams in this league, then we’ll go through a stretch of five or six games where we don’t really see any of it.

“When I look at our performance, we’ve had it at times, then other times we haven’t,” Martin said. “We haven’t been as good as we need to be. That’s something you develop in camp. That’s where you really establish work ethic, attention to details, professionalism; those are things that are going to be an imperative.”

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