OTTAWA (AP) -Daniel Alfredsson and the Ottawa Senators refused to forget how they felt last season after the Buffalo Sabres sent them home from the playoffs earlier than expected.
``We feel like we could have done more damage,'' Alfredsson said Tuesday, recalling the second-round loss. ``And I think that's the way we're playing this year.''
That loss might have been a blessing in disguise. Without it, the Senators might not have transformed from a free-scoring team to a disciplined, tight-checking squad.
``This time around, we are a better defensive team, so if we get up in a game, we're better suited for that,'' Alfredsson said.
The teams will open the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final series Thursday at Buffalo.
A year ago, the Senators rode their high-powered offense through the regular season and racked up 52 victories and 113 points - both tying franchise highs. When the postseason began, their freewheeling continued with a five-game romp over Tampa Bay in the opening round.
Against the Sabres in Game 1 of the second round, things unraveled - fast.
Ottawa blew five leads, two in the third period, en route to a 7-6 loss in overtime. The rest of the series, the Senators struggled to score - or play defense. All four of the Senators' losses were by a goal, three times in overtime.
``We faced adversity and didn't know how to deal with it properly,'' Senators center Mike Fisher said. ``It was a disappointing season last year because of it.''
For coach Bryan Murray, the defeat was the sign that things needed to change during the offseason.
``The learning curve took place after the playoffs last year when we realized things had to be different,'' he said.
When Ottawa returned to training camp in the fall, they came with a different approach.
The Senators still wanted production from top-line players such as Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, but not at the expense of giving up quality chances at the other end - their undoing in the series against the Sabres.
In the playoffs this year, the Senators patiently used a counterattacking style to beat Pittsburgh and New Jersey in just 10 games.
With a record of 6-0 when scoring first, the Senators have learned to protect leads and no longer panic when games are close, going 4-2 so far in one-goal games.
``From Day 1, the coaches talked about what kind of team we wanted to be,'' Senators defenseman Wade Redden said. ``We still scored a lot of goals, but we focused a lot on playing a team game and there were different times during the year that we got into those tight games and were able to just stick with the program and not force things.''
The killer instinct is also apparent in the way the Senators turned in arguably their best performances in each of their first two series in elimination games - a 3-0 shutout of Pittsburgh at home and a 3-1 road win at New Jersey.
``Last year, we were guilty of trying to force plays and go for that home-run play, where this year we're a little more patient and that's the way you've got to be at this time of year,'' Redden said.
The change in style has resulted in the Senators' ability to change their playoff fortunes. Chronic underachievers at this time of year, their history of failure in the postseason has been erased by making the trip to the conference final for just the second time.
``If that history (of failure) would've played into it, they probably would've went out in the first or second round,'' Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. ``You have to give them credit, there's been no history right there.''

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