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Olympic hangover brings panic in Ottawa Add to ...

rmacgregor@globeandmail.com

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It has shifted from trench warfare to psychological warfare.

The Battle of Ontario may be but a shadow of its former self when it comes to hand-to-stick combat between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators, but the mind games have escalated to a point where interest is once again on the rise.

Unfortunately, those mind games are almost exclusively being played out in the heads of the Senators.

Tonight at Scotiabank Place, a spirited young Toronto team that just happens to be the worst in the Eastern Conference will taken on a nervous, nail-biting, somewhat confused Ottawa team that, when NHL hockey broke for the Olympics, was thinking about a division title and a long run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But that was then and this is now.

It was a record 11-straight win streak - and 14 wins out of 16 games - that had the Senators and their fickle fans thinking about a remarkable resurgence for the team that, last year, missed the playoffs entirely after a 2007 run to the Stanley Cup final.

It would help if it could be said that Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson, centre Mike Fisher, defenceman Chris Phillips and goaltender Pascal Leclaire were all injured at the Winter Games and not expected back, but nothing of the sort happened. Only Alfredsson played in Vancouver and, thanks to the unexpected demise of Team Sweden, returned to Ottawa well-rested and healthy.

What happened then? The Senators, since the break, have dropped five of six games - winning only against Edmonton, the Western Conference's worst team - and have slid down to fifth place in the East. They have scored only four goals in those five losses.

One factor is sickness. The Senators were felled by a stomach bug early in their return to action and, one week ago, could barely field a lineup as they played, and fell, to these same Maple Leafs.

"We were missing half our team," coach Cory Clouston said yesterday, "and the other half were running to the bathroom every two minutes."

Another factor is the West, where the Senators rarely faring well on any road trip. They beat Edmonton, were shut out by Calgary goaltender Mikko Kiprusoff and simply soiled their short pants in Vancouver, where they fell 5-1 to the Canucks.

"It wasn't acceptable to play like that," Clouston told the media on Sunday.

At yesterday's practice, Clouston was playing with his lines as if his team had mysteriously turned into a jigsaw puzzle - caused in part by Fisher having left with an undisclosed problem and Nick Foligno returning after missing six weeks to a broken leg.

"A couple of juggles," Clouston called it, while admitting that his hope was to return to certain combinations that had worked in the past.

Certainly little, if anything, appears to be working in the present.

Clouston defended those players who have come in for personal attack in the bars and on talk radio: Alex Kovalev, who has gone from the team's most dangerous forward to being in danger of falling asleep on the ice; Erik Karlsson, who had been playing magnificently but seemed to return to the uncertain rookie he was at season's start; goaltender Pascal Leclaire, who is scheduled to have any memory of this past year surgically removed at the end of the season. . ..

"He's no different than the rest of our team," Clouston said of Kovalev. "We're just having a lot of trouble scoring.

"You can't just single one guy out and say he's playing poorly. To me, we win as a team and we lose as a team. . ..we could start pointing fingers at another 10-12 guys who we count on to create at least some offence.

"It's easy to target one or two guys if the rest isn't contributing either. It's not just a one- or two-man situation where we're trying to rely on guys to pick up their offence. We need to it by committee.

"It's not just one guy, it's a collective group."

If that sounds like group therapy, it is.

Clouston is convinced his team turned sour when they began "playing like we had something to lose. We built up such a. . .I don't want to say a big 'cushion' for playoffs. I don't know if we've relaxed a little bit - but we've got to start treating these games like playoff games.

"No one is panicking right now. We've just got to get back to playing our game. To me there's a big difference between urgency and panic - and we've just got to play with a little more urgency."

Forward Jason Spezza said his teammates feel they have good depth and "have confidence in both" goaltenders, Leclaire and the goalie most responsible for that incredible win streak in January and early February, Brian Elliott.

"We're a different team than we've had in the past," Spezza said.

Ottawa fans certainly hope far different from what they've seen in the immediate past.

 

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