Alfredsson is face of Senators' futility

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In the wake of the Ottawa Senators' third straight one-goal loss to the Buffalo Sabres, two moments stand out.

Both involve captain Daniel Alfredsson. And both, in many ways, define his tenure as an Ottawa Senator and the history and identity of the team itself.

With time winding down in regulation in Game 3 and the score tied at 2, Alfredsson found himself free to the left of Sabres netminder Ryan Miller. Alfredsson took a couple of strides, and from just outside the faceoff dot, unleashed a withering shot.

The shot beat Miller but glanced off the far post about three-quarters of the way up. There was one second left on the clock.

Just over five minutes into overtime, J.P. Dumont's fluttering shot appeared to glance off Senators' Mike Fisher in the slot before tumbling over Ottawa netminder Ray Emery's shoulder and into the Ottawa goal to give the Sabres a hammerlock 3-0 series lead.

"He was off his angle. I had a good shot there, I guess. It seems that's the way it goes right now," Alfredsson said of his achingly close call.

Only that's not just how it goes now, that's how it goes every year.

As Maxwell Smart used to say, "Missed it by that much."

It might well be the Senators' mantra. For nine straight years the team has qualified for the playoffs, a reflection of successful team-building, consistency and talent. But each successful regular-season campaign has been followed by a new and gruesome way to fall short of expectations.

The Senators have appeared in one conference final, giving up a late goal to the Devils in Game 7 to lose. Four times they were bested by the hated Toronto Maple Leafs, twice in seven games. This year, after winning the Eastern Conference and leading the league in goals scored, it appears the ending will be no different. It's only a matter, now, of whether it happens Thursday in Game 4 or sometime shortly thereafter.

Alfredsson has been there for all of it. From the first playoff loss to these same Sabres back in 1997 through to Wednesday's humbling loss. He is both witness to and participant in a team's relentless history of failure and disappointment.

For the past six playoff springs, Alfredsson has had the added burden of being the team captain. So on far too many nights like Wednesday, he has been the voice of that failure, the picture of it. Which brings us to the second defining moment of the evening.

Long after the Sabres had flowed over the boards to mob Dumont, and after many of his teammates had showered and left the rink, there was Alfredsson, unshowered, clad still in his team underclothes, standing in the middle of the nearly deserted Senators dressing room, calmly trying to answer questions that for the most part have no answers.

Can you come back in the series? he is asked.

"You're asking me 10 minutes after we lost in overtime. It's a tough question," the 33-year-old said patiently.

For the record, only two teams have ever come back from 3-0 deficits in NHL history, the Islanders in 1975 and the Maple Leafs in 1942. Alfredsson knows that. The Sabres know it, too.

"Right now it feels pretty tough," he said.

Reporters wandered in sporadically in small knots so that sometimes the questions without answers were repeated several times. Alfredsson answered them all.

"You're always going to look back at what could have been different," he said. "We are where we are and we're going to have to try and bail us out of this. I think we know it's going to be tremendously tough."

He said he'd heard a good story from former teammate Mike York, who played in Switzerland this season. Apparently York's team was down 3-0 in their playoffs and came back to win the league championship.

"As long as there's hope, we're not going to quit," Alfredsson said.

Along with clanging one off the post with time running out, Alfredsson recorded an assist on the Senators' first goal, one that tied the game 5:47 into the third period and a second set-up on the team's second goal, which tied the game at 2-2 and forced overtime with 1:30 left in the game.

In past situations like this, he has maybe tried to do too much, tried to lead by example. On Wednesday night, coach Bryan Murray reunited Alfredsson with Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley, who were at one time the highest-scoring line in the NHL. Scoring chances dried up for the trio and Murray broke them up before the playoffs. He had kept them apart for much of this playoff season in an effort to give the Senators a better-balanced offensive attack.

Through two periods Wednesday, the three had but three shots as the Sabres dominated the first period, taking a 1-0 lead.

The Senators played more physical in the second period and Alfredsson's line was more effective in the third. Altogether, Murray seemed neither overly pleased nor discouraged by the line's play.

"I thought they played hard for the most part," Murray said.

The coach was asked if he would be making changes for Thursday's potentially deciding fourth game.

"If I had changes to make, they'd be playing right now," he said.

Back in the Sens' dressing room, Alfredsson was asked if he has grown tired of having to explain away the team's losses and disappointments.

"It's not the best part of my job," he said.

Unfortunately, for one of the classiest men in the game, Alfredsson has had plenty of practice.

Before Wednesday's game, Alfredsson said he and his teammates have been staying in the "here and now," not worrying about the past. But in the Senators' all-but-empty dressing room, the past is everywhere. It's in every question and in every answer.

The final batch of questions nearing an end, Alfredsson gave a wry grin.

"It's a tremendous time of the year. There are lots of expectations. But the drive for me for the Stanley Cup is never going to stop. No matter what it takes," he said. "You're going to die trying."

Few would be as deserving of that reward as Alfredsson. The reality seems, though, that if it is to happen, it will be somewhere else, in a different jersey.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.