TORONTO Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray has been here before.
Only this time, in his third try, he's hoping to lead his band of talented and speedy Ottawa Senators to a Stanley Cup championship 12 months after losing in the final.
He was the general manager of the 1995-96 finalist Florida Panthers, but despite a 17-game unbeaten streak to begin the next season, the Panthers were jettisoned in the first round. In 2003, Murray watched his Anaheim Ducks advance to a seventh-game loss in the final to the New Jersey Devils, then miss the playoffs the next spring.
This time, four months after his Senators were beaten in the final by the Ducks, Murray feels he has a better handle on the situation.
"I wanted to make sure they were [mentally and physically] ready for training camp," Murray said last night before his Senators ran their exhibition record to 4-0 with a 4-3 overtime victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.
"It was a long run last year and training camp comes quickly," Murray added. "We did a lot of talking over the summer and again in training camp about how important it was to be focused right away."
The message was to be ready and aim for improvement as the season rolls along, with the best hockey to arrive when the playoff curtain is raised.
"We all want to win the Stanley Cup and we were so close last year," said Ottawa defenceman Christoph Schubert, who scored twice against the Leafs. "That's why management didn't make too many changes.
"We have such a fast, smart team. We proved that we can make it to the final, but to get back there, we need to continue to improve our game as the season goes along. That's the message."
With the regular season eight days away, Murray, who stepped down as the coach in June to take over the GM portfolio for fired John Muckler, likes what he has seen so far. The younger players have returned brimming with confidence, and the GM believes that a different voice running the bench, John Paddock, also will aid the Senators' cause.
"We need the young players to carry the load early," Murray said. "I also feel that with John, there will be a new voice for the players to pay attention to."
One of those young players, Patrick Eaves, scored the overtime winner when he tapped in a pass from Jason Spezza, who dipsy-doodled his way past Toronto defencemen Pavel Kubina and Bryan McCabe in the 4-on-3 power play. McCabe had a rough game. He was a minus-3.
"I feel way more confident with and without the puck," Schubert said. "I see a young player like Patty Eaves, who had a good season last year, even better. I think you can name all the young guys, we're way more confident."
Time is of the essence for the Senators because Spezza and his linemate, Dany Heatley, are scheduled for free agency after the season.
"Generally, with the salary cap, the window is smaller," said Spezza, who set up Heatley for the Senators' second goal in the first period. "We know we can win."
The Senators expect to be at full strength soon. Goaltender Ray Emery has taken his strides in training camp slowly, after off-season surgery on his left wrist. But he is expected to play at home against the Philadelphia Flyers tonight.
Second-line centre Mike Fisher, who signed a five-year deal two weeks ago, has yet to play because of a groin injury that he suffered last week. But he expects to play on the weekend against the Montreal Canadiens.
The Leafs jumped to a 1-0 lead on a Mats Sundin goal, but trailed 2-1 after the opening period and 3-2 after 40 minutes. John Pohl scored in the second period for Toronto and Alexei Ponikarovsky tied the score in the third with 8 minutes 50 seconds remaining. But a tripping penalty to Leafs defenceman Hal Gill early in overtime allowed Spezza to perform his magic for the game-winner.