The Ottawa Senators remained calm and said all the right things following a 1-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets Saturday afternoon, their fourth defeat in five games.
Was the loss of Jason Spezza finally catching up with them?
“It is what it is,” captain Daniel Alfredsson said. “We weren’t expected to score a lot of goals last year either and we found a way, and we’re going to try and do the same thing this year.”
Can Kyle Turris carry the load at centre alone?
“Collectively, we have to come together and find ways to create offence, put pucks and bodies on net and get more offensive zone time,” Turris explained. “I’ve got to do a better job of that myself.”
Were they just worn out due to the compressed season?
“Right now, obviously the schedule is tough,” defenceman Erik Karlsson said. “I mean, it is for everyone. We can’t complain on that.”
No, it isn’t panic time just yet, given the Senators are still 3-3-1 since losing Spezza to herniated disc surgery and remained sixth in the Eastern Conference heading into Sunday’s slate of games.
But troubling signs abound.
The Jets entered Saturday’s game near the bottom of the league in goals-against average and at the very bottom on the penalty kill. They also decided to trot out their backup goalie, Al Montoya, who had given up seven goals in just 67 minutes of work.
Montoya proceeded to stop 33 shots for the shutout while Ottawa’s power play went 0-for-3. It was the second shutout in five games by an opposing team’s backup, after Carolina’s Dan Ellis shut the door on them Feb. 1.
In fact, this season is turning into a tale of two very different teams: One with Spezza in the lineup, one without.
Over the first five games of the season, the Senators were speeding along at a nice clip. They were averaging 3.2 goals per game and the power play was clicking at a 26.6 per cent efficiency rate, which would have ranked them fourth in the NHL Sunday.
That, coupled with goalie Craig Anderson’s MVP-calibre start to the season, had Ottawa at 3-1-1 and challenging for the Northeast Division lead.
Then Spezza went down, and it’s been a mixed bag ever since. The Senators’ offence has dropped by more than a goal per game, and the power play efficiency rate has dropped by almost six percentage points.
Much of the pressure to score naturally falls on Turris, Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek, though coach Paul MacLean was quick to spread the responsibility around.
“This is a team thing. It’s not three guys,” he explained. “I mean, the whole team has to be involved in generating office. Obviously those players have proven in the past that, they get enough opportunities, they’re going to score. But the whole team has to generate offence, not three guys.”
And about that .500 record without Spezza …
“We’re not happy with .500,” Turris said. “We know we can do a lot better than that — we just have to do it consistently.”
Turris has reason to be less than satisfied with breaking even. It almost certainly won’t be good enough to get the Senators into the playoffs, and barring a trade by general manager Bryan Murray, significant help isn’t on the way any time soon.
In the best case scenario, Spezza will arrive in time for the tail end of the season, and by then it might be too late to make a difference anyways.
Making matters worse is the fact another centre, Peter Regin, had to leave Saturday’s loss with a chest injury (there was no update on his condition Sunday).
Players are fond saying they won’t use injuries as an excuse, that every team must overcome them over the course of the season.
But if the Senators continue to struggle through two important divisional games this week — Tuesday against Buffalo and Saturday in Toronto — and another against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins Wednesday, the Spezza factor will be harder and harder to ignore.