Scanlan: Slumping Sens need two points against Leafs

At this stage, the answers are about as tired as the questions.

Scanlan: Slumping Sens need two points against Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier makes a save on Ottawa Senators Milan Michalek, left, in the shootout during NHL hockey action in Toronto, Saturday October 5, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

At this stage, the answers are about as tired as the questions.

The Senators need a fresh angle. Explaining their pattern of win one, lose one, has become nearly as big a challenge for this hockey club as building a winning streak.

Maybe this is a good time to have a visit from the Toronto Maple Leafs and their band of merry followers. There’s nothing like the arrival of a rival to get a team’s attention.

“They’re arguably our biggest rival, a team we’re trying to chase down,” said captain Jason Spezza, “a team we have to beat to gain some ground.”

Though they’re missing some key players, especially forwards David Bolland, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul, the Leafs have relied on strong goaltending from Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer to stay in a playoff position — barely. Bernier made 48 saves against the Dallas Stars Thursday to lead Toronto to a 3-2 overtime victory, ending a five-game losing streak for the Leafs.

Meanwhile, the Senators have dropped three of their last four, including Thursday’s disappointing 3-1 loss to a Tampa Bay Lightning team racked by injuries.

Their current malaise makes Saturday’s edition of the Battle of Ontario even more significant than usual. The Senators have a serious opportunity to claw back to within five points of the wild card, a surprisingly pleasant option considering their well-earned 11-14-4 record to this point.

Clarke MacArthur, who played for the Maple Leafs the past three seasons, won’t have any trouble getting up for this one.

“No matter who we’re playing, it’s a huge game for us,” MacArthur said. “They have some offensive weapons there. I know they have some injuries but they have that one line you really have to key on.”

That would be the line of Nazem Kadri, Phil Kessel and James Van Riemsdyk, assuming they play together again.

MacArthur — and he’s hardly alone in this — is still trying to figure out how this Senators team can beat teams like Detroit (twice in three meetings) and Boston, but still stumble in games after wins. Not since the first week of November have the Senators enjoyed a winning streak.

After beating Florida 4-2 on Tuesday, Ottawa had an opportunity to sweep the state, but got beat in Tampa by what MacArthur called “a couple of chances from key players in key areas.”

Translation: Marty St. Louis killed them with two goals from the slot, while Valtteri Filppula scored the other.

Head coach Paul MacLean sees signs of his team coming around. The Senators don’t give up the massive shot totals they were prone to early in the season, but he argues his group is only playing well enough to be “close” to winning, instead of taking the two points.

He points to the transition of new leadership, new personnel and a younger defence corps taking more time than anyone imagined. And now here comes this great rival as a wake up call.

The Leafs, MacLean notes, “bring the best out of us.”

They have to hope so.

If the Senators lose to the Leafs they’ll fall nine points behind their divisional rival, currently holding down the last wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Would this Ottawa team be able to overcome that at this stage of the schedule?

“Yeah, I think you can,” MacArthur said. “We haven’t begun to tap into what we can do here. I know it’s getting to that point where we’re almost at 30 games (Game 30 is the Leaf showdown), but there’s no question you guys know, I know, that we have another gear or two.

“Watching the standings is tough, we’ve just got to string a few wins together and then you put pressure on teams above you. You can get yourself right back into things.”

No one in the room has faced greater scrutiny than Spezza, the new captain trying to right this ship. Defeats have not rested lightly on his shoulders this season, but he has done a good job of maintaining his equilibrium in between games.

“I think we’re lacking that killer instinct to win hockey games right now but we’re doing some better things and we’re making steps in the right direction,” Spezza said.

And it will mean diddly if the Senators can’t beat the Leafs at CTC, where a loss would spark a whole new level of grumbling and outrage.

Count defenceman Marc Methot among the positive thinkers in the room.

“We’re still able to jump right back into it, we’re only a few points off,” Methot said. “It’s the difference between winning a couple of games in a row instead of winning one and losing one.”

With a couple of games against the lowly Buffalo Sabres next week, hopes of an Ottawa win streak burn bright. First, they badly need to feel good about themselves, as only a Battle of Ontario win can do.

“You know it’s going to be a physical matchup, it’s going to be an emotional game and that can only work to our benefit,” Methot said.

“We’re going to go all out … we have no choice. We’re looking forward to the challenge, it should be a fun game.”

wscanlan@ottawacitizen.com
Twitter.com/HockeyScanner

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