First came the romp, now come the tough questions

 What does an NHL team do when it’s in the midst of a six-game losing streak, coming off an embarrassing home ice loss to its biggest rival and clinging to a playoff spot like a piece of loose tape dangling from the end of a hockey stick?

It sits back and watches football, of course.

Actually, Super Bowl Sunday just happened to land on a day following the unusual circumstance of home ice games on consecutive nights for the Ottawa Senators – Friday’s 2-1 overtime defeat to the New York Islanders and Saturday’s 5-0 romp at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs – meaning there was no real option for coach Paul MacLean to deliver a practice without pucks message.

Just the same, the day off did allow for what number one centre Jason Spezza said was time “to take a breath” and what MacLean called a moment to “regroup”.

In the bigger picture, it was also a day for general manager Bryan Murray to reflect on the state of his team three weeks shy of the NHL’s trade deadline, time to pause and remember that this was originally supposed to be nothing more than a rebuilding year. In its current state, the team is short of depth at defence, forward and in goal, but how much of the long-term plan does the team sacrifice in a bid to push for a playoff spot?

It can be argued that for most of January, goaltender Craig Anderson bailed out his teammates, team serving as a Band-Aid for the team’s defensive holes. Anderson stole several games in January, victories that provided the Senators with a points gap on the teams chasing them for a playoff berth. Anderson is no longer in that hot zone, perhaps showing the fatigue of starting 17 consecutive games.

Typically, a team in a losing streak uses a goaltending change to shake things up. There’s no question that MacLean found time during the huddles in the Giants-Patriots game to ponder whether to finally give a start to back-up Alex Auld Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues. Auld has a single win this season.

(While fans and Senators owner Eugene Melnyk have mused about the possibility of recalling Robin Lehner from Binghamton of the AHL, he’s not even the best goaltender in Binghamton right now. Lehner has a record of 7-14-1, a goals against average of 3.27 and a save percentage of .907, in a season which has been marked by inconsistency, injuries and a three-game suspension for fighting a rival goaltender and a referee. Mike McKenna, on the other hand, boasts a 13-13-0 record, a 2.89 goals against average and a .918 save percentage.)

On Saturday, the Maple Leafs speed also served to expose the Senators defence. It was a rough week for the blueliners all around, but in particular for Matt Carkner, Chris Phillips and Jared Cowen. Yet for Cowen, who only turned 21 two weeks ago, it probably shouldn’t be that surprising that he’s having a rough patch. His rise into the top four on the team’s defence had been one of the reasons why the Senators have been able to surprise so many teams in the first half of the season. Growing pains are part of the deal for rookies. As the intensity rises in the run to the playoffs, so do the lessons.

“I think frustrating is the key word,” Cowen said immediately following the loss to the Maple Leafs. “I don’t want to say we’re not competing, because obviously we care a lot, but we just need to get to practice to work on little things and just play with emotion instead of going through the motions.

“Teams are watching us a bit more, they’re studying us a bit more, seeing what we’re having success with, so they’re changing their game plan for us. We need to change up a few things, here and there.”

Clearly, MacLean is searching for answers offensively, which explains why Binghamton call-up Jim O’Brien was playing on a line with Spezza at the end of Saturday’s game. The first unit of the struggling power play featured Chris Neil and Colin Greening as Spezza’s wingers.

Spezza has gone six games without a point, seven games without a goal. Milan Michalek is goalless in 10, with only two assists in that span and MacLean says his best players have to do more.

“We’re just not getting puck luck, but it’s got be earned,” Spezza said. “Our best guys need to be scoring goals and right now, we’re not doing that.”

Spezza, though, was trying to put the best possible spin on their situation.

“We’re not in a terrible position,” he said. “We’re frustrated that we’re not getting wins, but it’s too early for us to look at the playoff picture right now,” he said. “You start doing that later on, getting into March. We knew (Saturday) was an important game. This is a team we’re battling with and a big rival for us. It’s a disappointing outcome, but we still have a lot more important games coming up and we just can’t get too down on ourselves.”

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