‘Game 30 is in the books.”
True, but Ottawa Senators head coach Paul MacLean isn’t sure what he’s reading there – or where this plot goes.
If Winston Churchill had only been doing something constructive with his time, such as following NHL hockey, he would have passed on Russia and instead tagged the Ottawa Senators as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
It was MacLean, perhaps unwittingly, who set up this Game 30 measurement back on Nov. 17, following a 4-1 loss to the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets.
With his team performing so “consistently inconsistent” after 20 games, he was the one who said, rather prophetically, that it was one thing to have no particular identity so early in the season, but once a team reached the 30-game mark, then “you are what you are.”
He could not possibly have suspected his team would be even more inconsistent, if anything, once that 30-game mark rolled around – as it did Saturday night in Ottawa against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The crowd of 19,559 – roughly 50,000 of them loud Leafs fans in blue jerseys– saw firsthand the Senators’ 2013-2014 season in microcosm.
They were dreadful; they were excellent; they took stupid penalties; the goaltending was suspect; the defence collapsed; they fell behind when the other team scored first for the 21st time out of 30 matches; they mounted a comeback; the goaltending held; they played one remarkable period – and they came up just short, losing 4-3 in a shootout to the Leafs.
Shootouts, incidentally, are one thing the Ottawa Senators should avoid at all costs: they have yet to score a shootout goal this year, missing on 10 consecutive chances.
“We are what we are,” MacLean conceded when it was over. “Right now we`re an inconsistent team that has a lot of potential for growth, a lot of opportunity to get better. But we`re not going to get better unless we come here and make a commitment to work every day to get better.
“I think that`s the big goal we have setting forth now, starting on Monday, is we have to find a way to get better. We have to continue to practice harder. We`ve got to play harder. We`ve got to learn to execute with the puck better. And we have to learn to become a much better and more consistent team.”
In other words, start from scratch.
Unfortunately, starting at the beginning is much different than starting at Game 31, which comes immediately with the much-improved Philadelphia Flyers in town Monday to face the struggling Senators at Canadian Tire Centre.
The Saturday game against the Leafs was a golden opportunity to recalibrate, as Toronto had not won on the road since Oct. 30. Ottawa, alas, had not won at home since Nov. 15.
The game between divisional rivals fighting for a playoff berth was tagged a “four-pointer,” but the increasingly-nervous fans of Ottawa were seeing it almost as a 40-point game – the match that would determine whether the team had hope, or was just hopeless.
A victory for Ottawa would have closed the gap between the Senators and Leafs to five points, suggesting recovery was entirely possible with 51 games left on the schedule.
A clear victory for Toronto, on the other hand, would have spread that gap to nine points – a seemingly insurmountable lead in the standings with Christmas nearing.
In the end it was neither, the shootout victory giving two points to Toronto but handing a welcome one point to Ottawa, the gap now at eight.
The armchair critics could well have called a Summit this weekend as opinions on what was wrong with the club were rampant: The Senators defence can’t get out of their own end; the defence sorely misses the stable presence of Sergei Gonchar, lost to free agency and the Dallas Stars; star defenceman Erik Karlsson still isn’t up to speed; struggling defenceman Jared Cowen should be sent to the minors; playmaking centre Jason Spezza has no one to play with; no one can play with Spezza; dumb penalties are killing them; former captain Daniel Alfredsson, lost to free agency and the Detroit Red Wings, would settle them down; they have no power play at home; they can’t kill penalties on the road … The simplest explanation is that last year, when they surprised everyone despite injuries to key players, they had out-of-the-world goaltending, whereas this year they just have goaltending.
Saturday night against the Maple Leafs, however, they had one period, the third, in which all moving parts – goaltending, defence, forwards – suddenly began working in harmony, good enough to tie the game and gain what might still prove to be a pivotal point.
“We did a lot of good things,” Spezza told reporters. “This is something to build off of.”
“I thought the game was there for us to have an opportunity for us after we got it tied up,” MacLean told his post-game news conference.
“I was really pleased with how we came back and came out in the third period and went after the game and didn ‘t sit back. [We] found a way to get something out of the game.
“We were hoping that we dug in and got something out of the game that could be a turning point heading into next week.”
We shall see.
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