Scanlan: Better effort, same result

Well, that was somewhat better.

Well, that was somewhat better.

Unfortunately, even in the NHL’s weaker Eastern Conference, they don’t give out points for moral victories.

The Senators will have to be content with competing better, hanging in during the second game of a back-to-back situation, but ultimately falling 4-2- to the streaking Florida Panthers – winners of five straight.

Reality bites. The Cats are just a point behind the once-mighty Sens in the east standings.

The home team tried to rise to the challenge at hand.

In the end, as superstar defenceman Erik Karlsson tumbled on a power play opportunity late in the game, the Panthers raced up ice and closed the deal with a shorthanded goal by Tomas Kopecky.

It was a bitter pill for an Ottawa team that vowed to use emotion to bounce back after being called out.

“It’s clear right now we’re feeling the heat, we don’t execute, we don’t play loose enough, we make mistakes at the end,” said captain Jason Spezza. “Teams know we’re reeling right now, we’re fragile and if we continue to play fragile, teams are going to take advantage of us.”

The Senators leaders were called out, and the leaders responded, almost to the point of carrying the Senators to victory. Almost.

Assistant captain Chris Neil scored the team’s first goal, off his skate blade, eclipsing the inevitable lead surrendered early on.

Spezza raised the bar with one of the prettiest goals scored in the building this year, dancing around Florida Panthers defenceman Dylan Olsen before ripping a shot to the top corner, over Scott Clemmensen’s glove hand. As he rounded the net, Spezza pumped his right arm in joy.

How sweet was that for the new captain, considering he hadn’t scored in 12 games, since Nov. 24 at Carolina. That made the score 2-1, in the dying seconds of the opening period. The joy didn’t last, and Spezza certainly didn’t find comfort in it after the loss.

“It doesn’t count worth shit . . . I could care less about the goal tonight.”

The Panthers got it back on a pretty play of their own, as young centre Aleksander Barkov tipped a pass from Tom Gilbert.

There was a time when victories over the Panthers were automatic for Ottawa teams, here or in south Florida. But now? Nothing comes easily this year, and so this one ground down to the usual late drama, two third period goals by the visitors.

Beforehand, there was so much hand wringing, it’s a wonder the Senators had the strength to hold their hockey sticks.

This is the way it’s been with this topsy-turvy Senators club in the topsy-turvy Eastern Conference.

One night, they’re soaring the heights. The next night, they’re plumbing the depths of despair.

Their fans, just last season so proud of this group and its work effort on the path to two playoff series, today require treatment for split personality disorder, such has been the rough ride through the first 37 games.

What has happened over the first two and a half months of this season is so shockingly different from those happy, hopeful days of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, the venting leading up to the Panthers game was palpable.

So enraged was general manager Bryan Murray by Wednesday’s loss in New Jersey (the familiar yo-yo dip after Ottawa’s impressive win against St. Louis here Monday), he marched into the visitors’ dressing room post-game to express his disappointment. Mad as hell, and couldn’t take it any more etc. Then, an animated head coach Paul MacLean called out everyone for what he called a “lack of focus, lack of leadership, lack of preparation . . . our competition level was zero.”

All of this meant the Panthers figured to be in for it when the lights came on at the Canadian Tire Centre Thursday. We half expected one of the Panthers would paraphrase Ilya Bryzgalov after Canada stormed the Russians in the 2010 Olympic tournament quarterfinals.

“They were like gorillas coming out of a cage,” Bryzgalov said in the mixed zone afterward.

No, it was hardly like that in Ottawa’s “statement game” against Florida. After falling behind 1-0 at 5:39 of the first, it looked like another here-we-go again evening at the Canadian Tire Centre.

Already, though, it was clear Spezza wasn’t going down without a fight, playing with a purpose at both ends of the rink. He might have scored earlier on a 2-on-1 break, but linemate Milan Michalek chose to shoot rather than pass and Clemmensen made the save.

Though he said all the right things about expecting criticism under the circumstances, and still having belief in the coach and his systems, the captain’s ears must have been ringing from MacLean’s challenge to his leadership group’s “focus, leadership, preparation . . .”

On Thursday morning, MacLean said he included the head coach and his coaching staff in the leadership group. In effect, calling himself out.

“We can be better, too,” said MacLean, the reigning Jack Adams Award winner. “We’re part of the whole group. We have to find ways to deliver the message better than we have. Teach better. Coach better. Whether with line combinations, line changes, ice time. We have to evaluate ourselves as we do after every game, and frankly we haven’t done a good enough job, too.”

After the game, MacLean said he was pleased with his team’s “response” to the harsh criticism following the Devils game.

Only because the east is such a friendly playground do the Senators have any hope at all. It truly is a chore to fall out of the playoff picture in this region, but the Senators are doing their best.

Here was another night of pain: Sens lose, Maple Leafs and other rivals win, and the road gets harder.

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