The Ottawa Senators have been here before.
They just wouldn’t remember it.
It was 21 years ago – a year before young Senators defenceman Cody Ceci was even born – and the Senators found themselves on watch by the rest of the league and by fans who like to follow sports oddities that fall within a given season.
In their very first year back in the NHL, the Ottawa Senators could not win on the road. But it was not until spring that serious note began to be taken of this phenomenon.
Just as last year they became known as the “Pesky Sens,” in their inaugural season back in 1992-93 they picked up the undesirable nickname of “Road Kill.”
The players and coaches hated it, but the media began pointing out that the Senators could very well go the entire 84-game season without a single road win and would, almost certainly, set a new NHL record for road futility.
Management at one point pressed the league to declare that the team’s two losses on neutral sites – to Toronto Maple Leafs in Hamilton and to Winnipeg Jets in Saskatoon – not be counted in the road tally. The league agreed, but this “Asterisk Affair” only upset the players all the more, as it had the effect of drawing even more attention to their shortcomings.
Game after game the Senators were “on watch” – the hockey world checking at the end of each game to see if a new record would be set and if it were possible for a team to play an entire season and never, ever win on the road.
On April 10, 1993, the Senators went in to Long Island to play the Islanders. They had already set a new league record for consecutive road losses, 38, and seemed an excellent bet to finish the season without a win – only to see team captain Laurie Boschman score a hat trick and lead his team to a surprising 5-3 victory.
The relief was palpable. When Boschman arrived at the bus that would take them to the airport, and home, his teammates lined up and bowed down before him, declaring “We are not worthy!”
The watch was over.
There are other examples of seasons within seasons that capture the fancy of fans. The 1979-80 Philadelphia Flyers went 35 games, Oct. 14, 1979, to Jan. 6, 1980, without a loss. And only last year the Chicago Blackhawks opened the season by going 24 consecutive games without losing in regulation.
Eventually, at times mercifully, strings run out.
Which brings us to the 2013-14 Ottawa Senators. Unlike the 1992-93 version, with its astonishing 10-70-4 record, today’s team is far from hopeless – except on those nights following a win.
Today’s Senators have star players – Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza, Bobby Ryan – and often superb goaltending in Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner. Their defence is young but anchored by the likes of veterans Marc Methot and Chris Phillips. They are coached by a man who, only last June, was declared NHL Coach of the Year.
Yet they cannot win two games in a row.
The watch began (though no one took note) back on Nov. 12 when, three days after the Senators defeated the Florida Panthers for their third victory in a row, they were crushed 5-0 by the Philadelphia Flyers.
In the 23 games that followed, not once have the Senators been able to put together even a two-game winning streak.
The result has been a team that last year reached the second round of the playoffs finds itself this year, at precisely the 41-game halfway point, in 10th place and struggling just to reach a playoff position.
Oddly enough, they have shown a remarkable tendency to beat good teams over that stretch: the Boston Bruins twice, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins. … But then they will lose to teams like the Panthers, Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes. …
The fans are baffled. Management and coaches are frustrated. The players are worried.
“We’re at that point,” Ryan said this weekend, “[where] things are going to start to change if we don’t string together two, three, four or five games in a row.”
In this past week, they whipped the Penguins 5-0 and then, once the Christmas Break was done, were themselves whipped 5-0 by the Bruins. One day later, Saturday, they scrambled to a 4-3 victory over these same Bruins – despite having Spezza and Phillips lost to injury.
Monday night in Ottawa the inconsistent Senators have one more chance to create a “run” of two wins in a row.
They will meet the Washington Capitals, a team four slots ahead of Ottawa in the standings, a team that has gone an impressive 6-2-2 over its last 10 games and a team that boasts NHL goal-scoring leader Alexander Ovechkin in the lineup.
But then, the last time these two teams met, back on Nov. 27 on the Capitals home ice, the winner was … Ottawa.
Will Monday see the end of the watch?
Or will continue on … and on … and on?
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