Alfredsson's play towers over his words

PITTSBURGH –- Flash back to the third period of Game 5, 2007 Stanley Cup finals.

The Ottawa Senators are sunk. They are trailing in the third period of what would be a 6-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in the final game in that final series, and the fans at the Honda Center were buzzing at the anticipation of their team's first Stanley Cup win.

But although the inevitable seemed to have sapped the entire Senators team of any remaining strength, one player doggedly pursued the puck, steadfastly tried to create scoring chances, never gave up, never quit.

His name? Daniel Alfredsson.

A year later, the Senators would be the underdogs in a first-round series against an emerging Pittsburgh Penguins team. In spite of injuries that kept him out of the first two games of that series, Alfredsson returned to the lineup for the final two games of what would be a sweep at the hands of the Penguins.

Although it was obvious he was playing through significant pain, Alfredsson was again the last Senator to concede defeat, the last one to take a knee.

We have watched up close as Alfredsson has patiently answered question after question after gut-wrenching playoff defeats. We have seen him accept blame for disappointments, sometimes when it’s been earned and other times because it was the right thing to do.

We have seen him bask in the glow of adoration at an All-Star Game held in Ottawa in 2012, as he captained one of the teams in the annual celebrity shinny.

Those are important touchstones as Alfredsson and his Senators face yet another long, uphill battle against the Penguins, against the backdrop that Game 5 might in fact be the classy Swede's final NHL game.

On Wednesday night, after Alfredsson and the Sens were whipped 7-3 by the Penguins and fell into a 3-1 series hole, the captain was asked whether it was probable that his team could win three straight games against the Penguins.

"Probably not," he told a group of reporters. "With their depth and power play right now, it doesn't look too good."

It is a sad reflection of our time, and perhaps the nature of sport, that a moment of raw candor from one of the game's most respected players -- and certainly the most popular Senator of all time -- has somehow morphed into a question about Alfredsson's commitment or leadership.

A little perspective, please.

If the Penguins do close out the Senators on Friday night in Pittsburgh, we are relatively certain the last player fighting for that last loose puck will be Alfredsson.

It is who he is. It is woven into the fabric of his being.

That he simply spoke the truth after his team was torched for four goals in the third period of Game 4 by the most fearsome offensive team in the postseason after taking a 2-1 lead out of the first period, is something that should be admired if not celebrated.

The Penguins have outscored the Senators 16-9 in the first four games of this second-round series. In three of the four games, the powerful Penguins have scored at least four goals.

The Pittsburgh power play -- which features Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla and James Neal, among others -- is the most deadly of any team in the playoff field and has scored 12 times in 10 games thus far this postseason.

Although there was discussion of the context in which his words were used, give credit to Alfredsson, who reiterated to reporters in Ottawa on Thursday that he believes his team is facing a tough road.

"There’s no denying we're in tough. Was it taken out of context? Probably, but that's fine. I can handle that," Alfredsson said before the team chartered its way to Pittsburgh for Friday's win-or-pack-'em-up tilt.

But if people think he was implying that he and the Sens have quit, they're wrong, Alfredsson said.

"If you ask anyone and they looked at our series, I don't think there's too many people that would pick us right now. That's what I meant,” he said. "Maybe I should have continued right away where I left off on the answer that I don't doubt one second that we're going to come out with a great effort tomorrow."

The playoffs are an emotional time for anyone involved, but when you're a 40-year-old who is approaching the finish line in a career that should and will earn Hall of Fame discussion, the dynamics are even more powerful.

Much was made of the fact that Alfredsson paused before leaving the ice after Game 4 to collect the puck from one of the linesmen. Who could blame him?

He has played his entire career with the Senators and is their leader in every important offensive category. Why shouldn't he have a memento if Wednesday's game was indeed his last home game?

Alfredsson hasn't said whether he will retire at the end of the season, and he acknowledged that he wasn't exactly sure why he took the puck with him.

"There's no specific reason. Could this be my last playoffs, could this be my last season? I don't know. I don't collect sticks or keep a lot of memorabilia at home, but there's no specific reason," he said.

A year ago, when the Senators lost in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Rangers, Alfredsson stopped the team bus as it was leaving Madison Square Garden to shake hands with a group of Senators fans. Some saw it as a sign that he was done.

It didn't turn out that way, of course. And who knows how the rest of this series will turn out?

One thing's for sure: The Penguins are well aware of Alfredsson's comments and don't believe they will have any impact on the kind of game the Senators will play Friday.

"I think that Ottawa's a team that we know has no quit. They're not going to stop coming at us," said Matt Cooke, who had a strong showing in Game 4 that included drawing an important penalty that led to a power-play goal and setting up a short-handed goal by Pascal Dupuis.

"I think he's a smart guy. He's a great leader for their team and organization, and I'm sure that he’s got the right intentions and motives behind his comments," Cooke said of Alfredsson.

Neal also knew of the comments, but likewise believed them to have little to do with the effort he's expecting from a Senators team that has walked tall in the face of adversity all season.

"I don't think by any means are they going to give up or roll over," said Neal, who broke out in Game 4 with a pair of goals and an assist. "We know that, and you saw it from their coach when he walked up to the podium last night and said they're coming to Pittsburgh with their best game and they're coming to play, and we expect that."

Neal was referring to the dramatic postgame summation given by Ottawa coach Paul MacLean, who simply held up the score sheet and said that all anyone needed to know about the game was on the sheet and that the Senators were going to Pittsburgh to play a game.

On Thursday, MacLean had little to say about Alfredsson’s comments.

"The playoffs are hard all the time, it's just harder [now]," MacLean said. "Daniel, I've got no issue with that."

Neither should anyone else.

Alfredsson has earned that kind of respect. As has been the case for many years, we have little doubt that people will remember Alfredsson's play far longer than his words at the end of a tough night in Ottawa.