Few line combos safe as Senators do the monster mash

You might excuse former Ottawa Senators Peter Regin and Matt Carkner if they ask themselves a few questions when they line up against their old team Friday as members of the New York Islanders.

Few line combos safe as Senators do the monster mash
Chris Neil (L), Jason Spezza (2nd from L), and Cory Conacher (2nd from R) are the Ottawa Senators new line in attack formation against Craig Anderson during morning practice at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, October 31, 2013. (Wayne Cuddington/Ottawa Citizen)

You might excuse former Ottawa Senators Peter Regin and Matt Carkner if they ask themselves a few questions when they line up against their old team Friday as members of the New York Islanders.

Questions like …

— What the heck is Jason Spezza doing on a line with Chris Neil and Cory Conacher?

— Is that really Zack Smith centring Milan Michalek and Mika Zibanejad?

— Why have seemingly inseparable defence partners Erik Karlsson and Marc Methot been split up?

Always one to try new things to solve persistent problems, MacLean’s latest efforts to end a stretch which has seen the Senators lose three straight games and four of the past five makes him look a tad like a mad scientist, desperately searching for successful chemistry experiments.

“I’m trying to get our team ready to play the Islanders and give ourselves the best chance, that’s all we’re doing,” MacLean said following Thursday’s practice. “We’ve changed (the lines) before, but at this point in time, with a chance to prepare (Wednesday and Thursday), we feel that’s the way we’ll start the game. But who knows by the end of the game?”

As shakeups go, the only way the Senators could have sent a stronger message was to assign a player to the American Hockey League or bring in the backup goaltender to play against the Islanders.

Well, actually, they did that, too, sending Jean-Gabriel Pageau to Binghamton and tabbing Robin Lehner as the starting netminder Friday.

This is the kind of stuff that happens when you lose eight of your first 12 games.

“It’s kind of a wake-up call,” said Methot, who will play alongside Patrick Wiercioch against the Islanders. “It does change your outlook. Maybe it’s a bit of a fresh start or a restart for us. If that’s the answer, at least temporarily, I’m all for it. Maybe shuffling them up will be the answer.”

The defence change also means that Methot will move to right defence from his natural left spot, while Wiercioch will go back to his preferred side. Wiercioch has struggled attempting to make the switch through the first dozen games, most of that spent with Jared Cowen. Cowen, who has also endured plenty of rough patches, has been pushed back to a third defence pairing with Joe Corvo.

“We’re trying to find some stability in (Karlsson’s) game and Chris Phillips is the most veteran player we have on defence,” said MacLean, conceding that his young defencemen need help to rediscover their top form.

Now, back to the flip-flopping forwards. While the Clarke MacArthur-Kyle Turris-Bobby Ryan line stays intact and fourth line of Colin Greening-Derek Grant-Erik Condra is the same as it was in Wednesday’s 6-5 loss to Chicago, the big change involves who is surrounding Spezza and Smith.

If there’s any way to read between the lines, it’s to see that MacLean wants all four lines to play a much simpler game, getting the puck deep in the opposition end, avoiding the neutral zone turnovers which have burned the Senators over and over again, as well as getting the puck to the net however possible.

It looks like a demotion for Spezza, but he has been around long enough to know that losing results in change.

“When you’re not winning hockey games, you have to try different things,” said Spezza, who suggests he will do what he can to play to the drive-the-net strengths of Neil and Conacher. “(MacLean) is inclined to put whoever he wants on the ice, whenever he wants, and we’re just not winning games and we’re trying to find combinations that will work.

“I have to continue to work on my game and try and play my game. If it’s five minutes a night getting the puck deep, then I do that. If it’s 25 minutes a night trying to score goals, it’s that. You have to do what you have to do.”

Smith, on the other hand, is being handed a rare opportunity to play with offensively-gifted wingers Michalek and Zibanejad.

“We’re 12 games in now and not where we want to be,” said Smith. “We’ve had meetings and talks for the past week or longer, and not much has changed. Drastic is too (strong) of a word, but when you change lines up like that, it’s another (approach). We have to start winning games here or something (else) is going to change.”

While Smith concedes he’ll never match Spezza’s offensive skills, he acknowledges there are some offensive expectations which come with playing on the new-look line. He also knows it may not last long.

“You never know, but that’s what happens when you’re losing,” he said. “There’s a little uncertainty when you’re coming to the rink.”

Smith and Methot are among those who suggest the team needs to rediscover the desperate mentality that carried them through the injury-plagued 2013 season.

“We’re a different team than last year and I think that’s something we’ve got away from,” Smith said. “We’re not as persistent. Last year, we would hang around in those one goal games and find a way to win. It’s the mistakes defensively that are kind of eating us up and maybe we’re trying to do too much.”

And now MacLean is trying everything to put an end to that.

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