'Who are those guys?"
You won't find an NHL player who would recognize the catch line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but Paul MacLean might, given he was 11 when the Paul Newman/Robert Redford classic was playing Saturday afternoon matinees in 1969.
Whatever, MacLean sure has been saying it a lot this fall.
Following the Ottawa Senators' third consecutive loss on home ice last Sunday, the head coach was left scratching his head.
"We've talked about identity," he told the gathered press. "What is it? Our identity in the past has been a hard-working group that's very competitive, comes to play and plays hard the whole game.
"Right now, we don't do that. What is our identity? The concern we have is that we're becoming something we weren't. We have to find a way to turn that around and get back to doing what we do."
Last Tuesday in Chicago, it seemed for a brief while as if the Senators had finally found themselves. Up by two goals on the Blackhawks, they looked very much like the "Pesky Sens" of a year ago – the only Canadian team to reach the second round of the playoffs and, this season, widely predicted to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
There they were, up 4-2 on the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Blackhawks forced to replace their goaltender partway through the second period. And there they were at the buzzer, 6-5 losers.
It marked the third consecutive loss, the third consecutive match against a tired team that had played and travelled the night before, the third game in a row where they faced a backup goalie – and still they couldn't win.
"You've got to find a way to win those games," a frustrated Craig Anderson told reporters in Chicago following the loss.
"Breakdowns happen," the Ottawa goaltender said. "It's part of the game. It's how you react to the breakdowns. Right now, it's one of those things – every breakdown seems like it's going in the back of our net."
The change in the team has been unmistakable. For two NHL seasons known as a team you couldn't let up on, a team that had an uncanny ability to come back, the Senators are today known more for letting in the first goal, often the first two, and then are unable to claw back as they once did. Nine times in their first 12 games the opposition has scored first.
"Who are those guys?"
"I don't want to say we're in an identity crisis or anything like that," Sens forward Bobby Ryan said last week, "but there's a feeling-out process and we're trying to figure out where we are."
"I think that year to year the team changes each year," captain Jason Spezza said. "Two years ago, I think we scored second or third most goals in the league. Last year, we allowed most or scored least amount of goals in the league. This year, I'm not sure. … I think we can be a pretty well-rounded team this year.
"We just have to find that identity."
Putting a face on a team is not what it once was in the NHL. Because of salary caps and increased player mobility, there will never again be a "Flying Frenchmen" (Montreal Canadiens of the 1950s) or "Broad Street Bullies" (Philadelphia Flyers of the 1970s) or 1980s Edmonton Oilers dynasty that remained largely the same for several seasons.
The toughest trivia question in hockey bars these days might well be: "Who does Jaromir Jagr play for?"
Given that each season is a new face, the Senators simply do not yet recognize themselves.
Now wearing a Detroit Red Wings jersey, Daniel Alfredsson is no longer captain, no longer a commanding force on the ice and in the room. Anderson, remarkably brilliant last season, cannot be expected to carry the team this year. Spezza and Ryan did not find the instant chemistry that had been anticipated. Believed to be deepest on defence when training camp began, it is defence today that is most suspect. It is a team whose first challenge is merely getting the puck out of its own end.
That the team is concerned was underlined earlier this week when Spezza called a players-only meeting that lasted a half-hour. On a positive side, as MacLean was quick to point out in Chicago, they did score five goals on the Stanley Cup champions. But they also lost, again.
A dozen games does not a season make, of course, and after losing to the powerful Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Blackhawks, the prospects of the Ottawa Senators brighten considerably as, over the next two weeks, they will meet the New York Islanders, Dallas Stars, Columbus Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Florida Panthers and Flyers.
Perhaps by then, "those guys" will find their face.
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