Twenty games in, Senators are out of playoff spot

The Ottawa Senators are not a playoff team.

That’s not an insult. It’s reality.

Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson, #41, loses sight of the puck as Montreal Canadiens Alex Galchenyuks shot gets past him and team-mates Jared Cowan, #2, and Michael Sdao during preseason National Hockey League game in Montreal Thursday September 26, 2013. (John Mahoney/THE GAZETTE)

PHILADELPHIA – The Ottawa Senators are not a playoff team.

That’s not an insult. It’s reality.

At the quarter point of the season, a quick glance at Monday’s NHL standings showed the truth – the Senators are 8-8-4, sixth in the Atlantic Division, ninth in the Eastern Conference, 21st overall – on the outside looking in at a post-season position.

Even Senators coach Paul MacLean concedes the team’s record is mediocre.

The season is not lost yet, but until the glaring weaknesses of poor starts, weak defensive zone play and overall inconsistency are corrected, there’s no reason to expect the final three-quarters of the season to be any different from the first quarter.

For all the long days at the rink, MacLean says it’s becoming impossible not to bring the work home with him.

“Self evaluation is a really good skill to have, but it can also be a bit of a burden,” MacLean said before the Senators left for Philadelphia under windy skies Monday afternoon. “Our team right now…the only thing consistent about it is that we’re inconsistent and we need to find a way to solve that.”

The 3-2 homestand, which ended with Sunday’s lacklustre 4-1 defeat to Columbus, is a case in point.

Morale-boosting wins over Montreal and Florida were followed up by an ugly 5-0 loss to Philadelphia. Then, the momentum-boosting, come-from-behind 4-2 victory over Boston on Friday morphed into Sunday’s sluggishness, bringing us back, full circle, to more soul-searching.

Captain Jason Spezza suggests the team needs to be better mentally prepared at the start of all games, not just those featuring high-profile opponents. Centre Zack Smith says players are straying away from a team-oriented focus in favour of too much individuality.

Tuesday in Philadelphia, there’s the possibility of reshuffling the deck on defence again – Patrick Wiercioch and Joe Corvo have both sat out the past two games – but at what point does that amount to reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic?

There’s no grand secret that the Senators main problem is their weak play inside their own blue line. The more zone time opponents have, the more scoring chances they earn, making life miserable for goaltenders Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner.

Twenty games in, the hopes that the Senators could thrive with a young top four on defence (Marc Methot is 28, Erik Karlsson and Wiercioch are 23 and Jared Cowen is 22) have yet to be materialized.

Karlsson is producing offensively at a point-per-game pace, but he’s not nearly strong enough around the Senators net. The problem with winning a Norris Trophy is you get measured against yourself and Karlsson isn’t where he was two seasons ago.

He’s hardly alone. Methot, Wiercioch and Cowen have also struggled, as have 35-year-old Chris Phillips, 36-year-old Joe Corvo and 25-year-old Eric Gryba. Mark Borowiecki, the 24-year-old call-up from Binghamton, has added toughness and is making it difficult for the Senators to take him out, but it’s also too much to ask him to routinely play big minutes against top lines. The inexperience is showing. The poise of Sergei Gonchar, who signed with Dallas as a free agent in the summer, is also being missed.

“We’re a young team, with new faces, some guys who haven’t been around that long,” said Gryba. “There’s definitely a learning curve, things we’re trying to figure out. But everyone is here for a reason and we have to show we can play every night. That’s no excuse. There are good young players in this league that are doing well.”

Spezza suggests the club’s relative inexperience is one reason why the Senators have been able to get excited for particular opponents such as Montreal and Boston, but not for games against teams such as Columbus. It has also been well-documented that Ottawa has scored first in only six of its 20 games.

The Senators captain says it’s sometimes necessary to “manufacture” excitement to play particular teams.

“We have big emotional games and big wins and then we follow them up with games where we seem to lack a little jump,” said Spezza. “It’s not about kicking a soccer ball around for five minutes longer or five minutes shorter or doing a couple of push ups with each other (before the game). It’s a matter of getting ready and realizing the urgency behind certain games. There are games you have to prepare differently than other games. It might just be inexperience with some of expectatations. Experience comes in with knowing certain games need different kind of urgency.

“We’re not sharp enough after big wins.”

Spezza hasn’t found any offensive consistency, partly due to the struggles of his wingers. Left winger Milan Michalek has scored only three goals and has been taken off the first power play unit. At this point, MacLean is rotating Cory Conacher and Mika Zibanejad on Spezza’s right side, with minimal results.

Yet considering the Senators are at a roster maximum of 23 players and owner Eugene Melnyk isn’t prepared to bring in another big salary to try and change the chemistry, there should be little expectation of major changes.

Centre Zack Smith says there’s something to Spezza’s argument about better preparation for all opponents. In terms of game strategy, that translates into sticking to a game plan over and over and over again, regardless of who the Senators are playing.

At times, he says the Senators have lost that approach. Instead of routinely dumping the puck deep into the opponent’s end from outside the blue line and pounding the defence, the Senators have been guilty of trying to make an extra move or an extra pass, either turning the puck over or putting their teammates off side.

“Maybe we thought we were going to be that much better as a team and not have to play the team game as much,” Smith said. “If that’s the case, we’ve been proven wrong. We played that way the last two years, with big players missing. Maybe some people overachieved, but this year we’re definitely underachieving.”

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