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Ottawa Senators Mike Fisher pants during a team practice in Ottawa on Wednesday, October 6, 2010. Pawel Dwulit for the Globe and Mail (Pawel Dwulit)
Ottawa Senators Mike Fisher pants during a team practice in Ottawa on Wednesday, October 6, 2010. Pawel Dwulit for the Globe and Mail (Pawel Dwulit)

Roy MacGregor

Senators popgun offence triggers alarm bells Add to ...

History argues that it is possible to go all the way to the Stanley Cup with a top scorer who does not break the 25-goal mark - Max Bentley had 21 for the 1950-51 Toronto Maple Leafs, Bill Cowley had only 17 for the triumphant 1940-41 Boston Bruins - but it's not likely to happen this century.

Last year's top goal scorer for the Ottawa Senators was Mike Fisher, with exactly 25.

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That number, sadly, is beginning to look pretty impressive, given that three games into the season - the Senators play their fourth game Thursday night, playing host to the Carolina Hurricanes - the sum total of the team's two top offensive lines is … one goal.

Not only that, but it was announced Wednesday afternoon that more than 4,000 tickets remained for sale, an indication, surely, of both the weak drawing power of the opposition and the rising concern of a nervous fan base.

"It's three games," Jason Spezza cautioned on Wednesday. "Let's not get carried away."

But this is Ottawa, where three bad shifts can light up the talk-show lines.

"We're not panicking," added Nick Foligno and about a half dozen other players. Foligno, along with the likes of Fisher, Milan Michalek, Peter Regin, Alex Kovalev and Daniel Alfredsson - who missed practice due to soreness but will still play - have all yet to find the net, a feat only Spezza, among the expected scorers, has managed.

It has left coach Cory Clouston claiming that, though his team lost 3-2 in overtime to the Washington Capitals, the Senators "outchanced" the opposition, a moot claim that harks back to the days when the sad-sack Senators had only missed opportunity to cling to.

The bright lights so far have been the least expected; Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu, who are paid to work when the other team has the puck, lead the team in scoring, and goaltender Pascal Leclaire, who had an exhibition season in which it sometimes seemed he was wearing goalie equipment for the first time, has been just fine.

None of this was expected. The Senators were supposed to have their miserable summer far behind them - the 2009 fiasco involving Dany Heatley's trade demands - and this year were expected to feature stable coaching (Clouston now familiar and firmly in charge), rising young stars on offence (Regin) and defence (Erik Karlsson), the welcome addition of power-play specialist Sergei Gonchar, Spezza entering his prime, and captain Alfredsson still able to do it at 37.

Spezza has played only two games and has a goal, while Alfredsson is coming off surgery for a sports hernia. But Regin was such a bust in exhibition that he has dropped down the depth chart. Karlsson has been as mistake prone as he was early last year when it sent him to the minors. And Gonchar and the power play are a shocking 0-for-14.

As for Kovalev, the ridiculously talented free agent the Senators signed last summer for $10-million (U.S.) over two years, his mysterious lassitude appears as if it will continue through 2010.

However, just as Kovalev has faded in and out of interplanetary travel over his career, so, too, can the Senators suddenly take sharper focus. Less than a year ago there was far more panic about the team over a January losing streak that reached five games, only to have the team rocket to a franchise-record 11 wins in a row, sending them easily into the playoffs.

It can happen, but it will require the simplest factor the game knows: goals. And surely a player or two with more goals than the 25 Fisher managed last season.

In the years since the NHL owners' lockout ended in 2005, top goal scorers for the eventual Stanley Cup champions have ranged from a high of 48 for Anaheim's Teemu Selanne in 2007 to a low of 30 last year for Chicago's Patrick Kane.

Fisher, who was last summer's top Senators story as he married country singer Carrie Underwood, says he cannot even recall the last time he led a team in goal scoring: "I don't even know if I did in junior. No, not junior. Probably bantam."

His success last year came, he says, out of injuries to top players that left him filling in on power plays, where he scored 10 of his goals.

"I don't expect to lead the team," he says. "I'm going to do what I can do, but I'm not a top-scoring type of guy, especially on our team when guys are healthy. But I'm going to chip in. I think I can do better than I did last year, for sure."

If he does score more than 25, and if, by chance, he is not the team's leading scorer at year's end, then it is likely this team will remain as it sees itself: a playoff contender.

But they had better get going.

 

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