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The Ottawa Senators Jean-Gabriel Pageau (R) is congratulalted by teammates Erik Condra (L) and Cory Conacher after Pageau scored a goal against the Boston Bruins in the third period of their NHL hockey game in Boston, Massachusetts April 28, 2013. (BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)
The Ottawa Senators Jean-Gabriel Pageau (R) is congratulalted by teammates Erik Condra (L) and Cory Conacher after Pageau scored a goal against the Boston Bruins in the third period of their NHL hockey game in Boston, Massachusetts April 28, 2013. (BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)

Roy MacGregor

Senators set to put survival skills to test against Habs Add to ...

The Hockey Sweater is not – repeat, not – the story of Bryan Murray.

Yes, the general manager of the Ottawa Senators did grow up in western Quebec (Shawville) in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Yes, the winters of his childhood were “long, long seasons.” And yes, even if his large family was not French-Canadian, it could be said: “We lived in three places – the school, the church, and the skating rink, but our real life was on the skating-rink.”

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But he did not wear Maurice Richard’s number, did not comb his hair like the Rocket and, blasphemy, did not cheer for the Montreal Canadiens.

“I never cheered for them,” Murray said Monday.

And certainly will not be cheering for the Canadiens on Thursday at Bell Centre, when his Ottawa Senators meet Montreal in the opening game of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs.

No, the Habs lover in the Murray family was brother Barry, father of Ottawa assistant manager Tim Murray. Bryan Murray cheered for Gordie Howe and the Detroit Red Wings.

“I never hated them,” he said of his brother’s beloveds. “I just never cheered for them. I don’t know why he cheered for them. …”

Barry Murray would have cheered for the Rocket’s Canadiens because they were fast, powerful, exciting and had superb goaltending – something that, at times, could be said about the 2013 version of the storied hockey club.

But the days of dynasties and five-in-a-row Stanley Cups are long gone in the NHL. Today’s teams move up and down far more dramatically, and the Canadiens have been both very good and very bad this shortened season, mostly bad of late.

The Senators, on the other hand, have been consistent in their resilience, disproving the so-called experts – hands up, please – who said they could not possibly survive early and often-long-term injuries to their best player (Jason Spezza), best defenceman (James Norris Memorial Trophy winner Erik Karlsson) top rookie defenceman (Jared Cowen), top goal-scorer (Milan Michalek) and No. 1 goaltender (Craig Anderson).

And yet the Senators not only survived, they thrived, finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference, whereas they were eighth only a year ago. In four games between the Habs and Sens, each won two – three games were one-goal victories and two went to shootout.

“I like the matchup,” Murray said. “We think that the series will be a fast series, a good series.”

The Ottawa GM points out his team has significantly improved on defence since they last played Montreal. The return of Cowen from hip surgery and the rise of Eric Gryba from the minors has put two physical mammoths in front of the net. The stunning return, 10 weeks after surgery, of Karlsson has given the Senators the attack engine so lacking since the 22-year-old Swede went down under Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke’s skate blade.

As well, Anderson returned to goal, and quickly to form, ending the season with a modern NHL record save percentage of .941.

“This is a series that probably has a little length to it, probably go six, seven games.” Murray predicted. “But I think we have a real good chance. We’re not a great scoring team, but we defend really well. They have a great power play, we have pretty good penalty-killing.

“Both teams are built for hard work and speed and good goaltending. It will be exciting. It’s an old franchise that we’d like to knock off at some point, and this year we have a chance.”

Surprisingly, the Sens and Habs had never met in a playoff round in the 20 years since the Senators returned to the NHL. Ottawa players say they are looking forward to Thursday in Montreal.

“Their fans are passionate, they’re intense,” forward Chris Neil said. “One of the loudest buildings in the league and I can just imagine what it’s going to be like in the playoffs.”

“It’s going to be terrific for the area,” Murray added. “For the city of Ottawa, for our fans now see that we match up, that they can come out in force and support the Senators. I think there are nights in our building when Montreal or Toronto played when we got not outnumbered but certainly outyelled.”

There will be a real “Canadian flavour” to the round, Murray said. And, he trusts, it will have an effect that will last long beyond the best-of-seven series.

“There’s a lot of local people who still cheer for their childhood team, and I guess that’s why they wear different colours,” he said of the multitude of Canadiens and Leafs jerseys that fill the stands each time Montreal or Toronto comes to Ottawa. “This is a real chance for us to take their kids under our wing – and get them to cheer for us.”

Just as when he himself was young, he decided for himself the team he would dream of hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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