Such a shame the word “incognito” has fallen into such disrepute lately.
The Ottawa Senators have reached the 20-game mark, still desperately in search of that slippery hockey quality known as identity – and The Incognito Sens is looking more and more like the only fit possible for this mysterious, unknowable NHL team.
But, thanks to the bullying controversy involving Miami Dolphins football players Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, that word won’t do.
They would love to return to the “Pesky Sens” of last year when, despite injuries to virtually all the top players, Ottawa went deeper into the Stanley Cup playoffs than any other Canadian team.
One period they can be the Pesky Sens, the next the Sloppy Sens, then the Stupid Sens and even the Surprising Sens – as they were Friday evening during a spirited come-from-behind 4-2 victory over the powerful Boston Bruins.
That win over the Bruins had come only days after a 5-0 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, a game so poorly played that long-time fans had to go back to the days of Darcy Loewen and Alexandre Daigle to find a comparable.
Sunday afternoon’s 4-1 loss to the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets would, sadly, be another comparable.
Senators head coach Paul MacLean is getting just a bit tired of such dismal efforts.
“There’s too many of them at 20 games,” he said when the buzzer had put a merciful end to this outing. “And once you get to 30, you are what you are.
“If this is what we are, an inconsistent group, it’s not going to be much fun.”
“That’s a really disappointing game for us,” said Ottawa captain Jason Spezza. “One step forward one step backward doesn’t get you very far in this league.”
The Senators came into their 20th game tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference, the final playoff berth. Columbus, on the other hand, stood a distant 14th, ahead of only the bottom feeding Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres.
And yet, on this spitting Sunday afternoon in the nation’s capital, the Blue Jackets looked like champions.
“Their power play was much better than ours,” MacLean said in an understatement.
Heading into the match, Ottawa had a penalty kill rate of 84.3 per cent, a respectful eighth out of the 30-team league. But this day the penalty kill was atrocious.
The Blue Jackets scored on their very first power play opportunity when, with Ottawa defenceman Marc Methot off for holding, Ryan Johansen beat Senators goaltender Craig Anderson from the slot only 12 seconds into Columbus’s man advantage.
It speaks to the quality of play in the first period that the largest cheer of the sparse crowd was reserved for opposing forward Nick Foligno, a popular Senator until he was traded in the summer of 2012 to Columbus for Methot.
Foligno was playing his first game back after taking time out to be with his and Janelle’s infant daughter Milana, who was operated on at Boston’s Children’s Hospital earlier this month for a congenital heart defect.
Twice in the second period the Blue Jackets took advantage of Ottawa being in the penalty box. R. J. Umberger swatted a rebound out of the air in behind Anderson to put Columbus up 2-0. Later in the period, on a two-man advantage for 27 seconds, defenceman Fedor Tyutin put a blast from the point past Anderson.
Columbus took the score to 4-0 when Derek MacKenzie cuffed a back-of-the-net pass from Mark Letustu in behind Anderson just as the net jumped off its pegs. Following review, the goal was allowed to stand.
The crowd was announced at 15,535, nearly 5,000 below standing-room capacity for NHL games. Attendance has been down roughly 1,800 a home game this season and an early Sunday afternoon match against a starless, struggling team, the Blue Jackets, combined with CFL playoffs and NFL football made this game a tough sell.
So, too, did the play.
“Grinding style, nothing fancy,” said Foligno. Nothing fancy indeed.
“We just kept it simple,” added his Columbus teammate Johansen. Simple to the point of stagnant.
Those fans who did come out were desperate for something, anything, to cheer, and finally were able to nearly six minutes into the final period when Mark Borowiecki, a local native, smashed into Columbus forward Jared Boll.
Blue Jackets defenceman James Wisniewski tore into Borowiecki in a spelling bee that resulted in fighting majors and misconducts to both – with Borowiecki also being tagged five minutes for elbowing Boll and Wisniewski picking up a two-minute instigator.
“I was just trying to finish my check,” Borowiecki protested. “I would never want to hurt anybody.”
With time running out and the Senators on a late power play, Erik Karlsson finally beat Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
The fans finally had something real to cheer.
Those who were left, anyway.