One day before Christmas Eve and they're still dealing with Groundhog Day in Ottawa.
Win a game, lose a game, win a game, lose a game, win a game, lose a game, lose a game, lose a game….
The Senators have not won twice in a row since Nov. 9. In the time since, they count 14 losses and only seven victories, leaving this team that last year went deeper into the playoffs than any Canadian franchise, that was tapped to win the Stanley Cup by one publication, is in 11th place and seemingly sinking in the weaker Eastern Conference.
Exasperated head coach Paul MacLean has called out the defence, called out the forwards, called out the goaltending, called out the leadership, called out himself, switched the lines, blamed the weather, accused the mascot, replaced the Zambonis and tweaked his mustache – all to no avail.
Dysfunctional, thy name is Senators.
Saturday afternoon at Canadian Tire Centre, a fan arriving late in the first period might have thought the game was already over and the Senators had won. The Ottawa players still on the ice milled about, high-fiving and slapping pads, stopping just short of raising their sticks to salute the home crowd.
The reason? They had just got through a first period without giving up the first goal. Not only that, they held a 1-0 lead over the visiting Phoenix Coyotes.
But they could not hold it. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the second, then slowly returned to their woeful ways as they allowed the Coyotes to come back and tie the game 2-2.
The Senators led again and let the Coyotes tie it. They then let the Coyotes win the game in overtime when, once again, the Senators could not clear their own zone.
To add insult to injury, the overtime goal, his third of the game, was scored by Antoine Vermette – who used to be a Senator back in the heady days when Ottawa made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final.
"I'm sick of standing here saying all the same things," defenceman Marc Methot, who scored one of the Ottawa goals, said at game's end.
So, too, are the media who stand there asking all the same questions: What went wrong? What's needed to turn this around?
Nearing the halfway point of the 2013-14 season, the themes of the Ottawa Senators have shifted only in nuance. First it was about finding "chemistry" – never happened. Then it was about reaching the 30-game mark and accepting they are what they are – whatever that is. Then it became a search for "our best team" – and mercy be on them if this is indeed what they have become heading into Monday night's match with Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"It's almost as if we found a way to lose," Methot said. "… It pains me to say that."
Clarke MacArthur talked about the incredible "funk" the Senators find themselves in: "It seems like every single puck goes into the net – incredible."
"We can't find a way to win," said captain Jason Spezza. "Every mistake ends up in the back of our net. It's not the goalies' fault…."
Ah, but this is Canada and this is hockey – so it has to be someone's fault.
The list of blame fluctuates nightly on the after-game call-in show. Spezza, who had the bad luck to take over the 'C' from uber-popular Daniel Alfredsson – currently on a points streak with the Detroit Red Wings – is a natural lightning rod, though he does have 29 points and, frankly, has been paired most of the season with the tail-spinning Milan Michalek. The defence, missing steady Sergei Gonchar, also lost to free agency (Dallas Stars), was supposed to be the team's strong suit but, instead, has seemed panic-stricken and mistake-prone all fall. The goaltending – Craig Anderson, Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner, who were playing at an all-universe level during the shortened season of 2013 – has been up and down, pretty much as it is for all other teams. The team takes too many unnecessary penalties and then cannot handle the other teams' power plays. The Senators have slipped from the NHL's best penalty-killing team a year ago to a dismal 26th on Saturday after giving up two power-play goals to Phoenix.
In the past week, fingers even began pointing at MacLean, last year's Jack Adams Trophy winner as the NHL's best coach, as he turned Methot into a healthy scratch before inserting the usually-dependable defenceman back into the lineup Saturday.
"We're just trying to find a way to win a game," MacLean said after the loss.
He even voiced a suggestion: "Maybe we're trying to do too much when the game gets to that point with a lead in the third.
"Maybe if we did a little less, we'd be in a better position."
Not sure whether that's advisable given that Monday's visitor includes Crosby, who scored a goal and two assists Saturday as his Penguins defeated the Calgary Flames 4-3. The game marked Crosby's 20th goal, league-leading 54th point and extended his points streak to 10 games (seven goals, 11 assists).
No doubt the Pittsburgh captain would like nothing better than to see the Ottawa Senators counter with a little less.
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