- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

Jacques Martin is still their coach. Six of their top eight scorers have suffered through their first-round playoff exits the past three years, two of which they began with home-ice advantage. They seem destined to open postseason against the Toronto Maple Leafs for a third straight April. So why should this spring be any different for the Ottawa Senators?

"People said we needed grit and toughness to do well in the playoffs, so we brought guys in like [former New York Islanders defenseman Zdeno] Chara and [rookie winger Chris] Neil, and some guys who have been here a while have taken it upon themselves to be more physical," said defenseman Chris Phillips, one of six Senators to have skated in an Ottawa playoff series triumph.

"We realize we can't back down," Phillips continued. "We have to dish it out more than we take it. That's a dimension of the game that we could have been better at in the past. We feel we can win in different ways now, not just [with] an up-and-down-the-ice game."

With 91 points and just five games left heading into last night's contest against the Washington Capitals at MCI Center, the Senators won't match last year's franchise record 109 points. However, seventh-year coach Martin likes his team, which led the Eastern Conference with 233 goals and was one of just three teams to boast a quintet of 20-goal scorers: Daniel Alfredsson (37), Marian Hossa (29), Radek Bonk (24), Martin Havlat (22) and Todd White (20).

"When we started camp, we had lost [78] goals from Alexei Yashin, Andreas Dackell [who were traded], Rob Zamuner and Mike Sillinger [who departed in free agency], but we knew that we had a young nucleus [winger Shawn McEachern, defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn and late-season pickups Benoit Brunet and Jody Hull are the only regulars over 30] that would get better," Martin said.

"Alfredsson has had his best year and we've seen the emergence of some young players like Havlat and [Mike] Fisher. We added some grit with Chara and Neil, but that can be misleading. Detroit wins Stanley Cups because its top players are willing to pay the price. In order to win in the playoffs, your top players have to perform at their best. For us, that's Alfredsson, Hossa, Bonk and McEachern."

Ottawa's top scorers have always come up small in the clutch. McEachern has a paltry four goals in 32 playoff games with the Senators. Hossa has one goal in 14. Bonk, who leads the Senators with a career-high 68 points, has produced one assist in 24 postseason games. Only Alfredsson, with 15 goals in 32 games, has been even a decent playoff performer.

After taking Buffalo to seven games as first-time playoff entrants in 1997 and then upsetting New Jersey before losing to the Caps in 1998, Ottawa was seen as an emerging power. But after winning just three of 15 games the past three springs against the Sabres and Maple Leafs, the Senators have become an easy target.

On Wednesday, ex-Boston coach Don Cherry the Dick Vitale of Canadian hockey broadcasters said no team feared Ottawa despite the presence of the 6-foot-9, 255-pound Chara, who was fourth in the NHL with 278 hits, and Neil ranked eighth with 205 penalty minutes. The xenophobic Cherry naturally dislikes a team whose top four scorers are Europeans, but the Senators know that they have much to prove in the playoffs, especially after managing just three goals while being swept by the Leafs last April.

"You get judged on playoff performance," Phillips said. "We have to do something to meet the expectations which are high, but not unrealistic."

Martin said he doesn't care whom Ottawa draws in the first round, but his players know which team they want to face.

"The only way to prove to people that we're a better team is to face the Leafs one more time and beat them," Fisher said.

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