Hard times in sport have a way of unleashing the clichés.
Ottawa Senators head coach Paul MacLean, trying to come to terms with a hockey team that fades in and out like a bad signal, was issuing the usual don’t-get-too-high-don’t-get-too-low mantra when he suddenly thought to add a corollary:
“It would be nice to get a couple of highs, though.”
It would, but wasn’t to be Wednesday, as the Minnesota Wild staged a comeback 4-3 win over the Senators.
MacLean had tried everything he could to get through to his stumbling team: hard practices, talks about communication, the need to get back to a simple work ethic. Whatever he could think of to put an end to the losing.
He might as well have turned to long-time former NHL coach Tom McVie, who found futility with the Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets, and who once grew so tired of endless losses he said he’d rather come home to find his wife cheating than continue on like this: “At least I could tell her to stop.”
A year ago, with a string of long-term injuries to their top players, the Senators went farther than any other Canadian team in the NHL playoffs. They were even picked by one publication to go all the way this year – but the direction wasn’t supposed to be down. A quarter of the way through the 2013-14 season, they are playing below .500 hockey.
They had had such dismal starts to games that in the previous four – as well as for the 11th time in 21 – they had fallen behind 2-0 to the opposition. And whereas once the “Pesky Sens” might have made up such shortcomings, this year’s “Problem Sens” have not.
If ever there were incentive, this should have been it. The Wild, after all, had not defeated the Senators since March 16, 2004, a positive streak of six games.
The Wild also carry two players despised by Senators supporters: Matt Cooke, who stomped on Erik Karlsson’s Achilles tendon a year ago, when Cooke was with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and put the James Norris Memorial Trophy defenceman out for most of the season; and Dany Heatley, once a hero in Ottawa colours, but one who demanded and received a trade four years ago.
Senators fans were certainly up for. So, too, it seemed, were the Senators themselves.
Kyle Turris had promised before the match that “we’re making changes” – everything, he suggested, from how they took pregame warmups to how they flossed. “We can’t panic,” he added, even though it has been clear for some time that team, ownership, fans and popcorn vendors are.
It was Turris who first signalled change might be in the cards when he and Clarke MacArthur roared down ice on an early penalty kill. MacArthur used his speed to reach a loose puck and a between-the-legs pass that would get most players benched to set up Turris for a shot that somehow squeaked through Wild goalie Josh Harding.
Unfortunately, that was quickly equalled when Jason Pominville pounded a short Zach Parise pass in under the blocker of Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson.
The question was raised: Were this night’s Senators the team that had collapsed three times in the previous week against the lowly Philadelphia Flyers (twice) and Columbus Blue Jackets, or were they the Senators who surprised the powerful Boston Bruins last Friday in a 4-2 comeback win?
It seemed the latter … for a while.
Mika Zibanejad scored on a wild goalmouth scramble to again give the Senators the lead. But then, in the second period, the Wild staged their comeback.
Defenceman Jonas Brodin scored on a long shot from the point that seemed to fool Anderson. And then, just to rub salt in a still-festering wound, Heatley scored on a ridiculous play where the Wild forward lost control of a puck, Anderson failed to clear it, Karlsson failed to clear Heatley, and Heatley merely reached around and tugged the puck into the open side of the net.
Ottawa was able to tie the game 3-3 half way through the third period on a power play, when Milan Michalek cuffed a rebound past Harding.
But it was to no avail. Minnesota captain Mikko Koivu settled the matter with less than three minutes remaining when he wristed a shot past Anderson.
The 16,642 fans went home unhappy, even though in many areas the Senators seemed an improved team.
Unfortunately, patience is running out in Ottawa.
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