Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Staggering Senators face many questions

The downward direction of the Ottawa Senators these days is beginning to leave the realm of what’s wrong with the team, to what’s wrong with the management?

The Sens who have suffered some pretty embarrassing losses over the last couple of weeks are quickly becoming the Britney Spears of NHL Hockey teams; everyone is watching them and expecting the worse.

The latest bit of trouble for the Sens came on Monday with smack down at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, which had followed a loss to the Boston Bruins. Two games that last season would have been considered a relatively easy four point weekend, this year they were further proof that things are going terribly awry in the nation’s capital.

With Wade Redden now sitting out until his troubled groin heals itself and Martin Gerber providing the detractors lots of ammunition, the key players of the off season are suddenly not providing what they were supposed to. A fact not lost on a pretty astute hockey audience in Ottawa who remember that it was the machinations of John Muckler that brought Gerber to the capital, increased Reddens pay package and lost a lynch pin of the defence in Zdeno Chara.

While most will give Muckler the benefit of the doubt on the Redden signing, he is still one of the better defencemen to have pulled on an Ottawa jersey in the teams history, the Gerber acquisition is getting harder and harder to defend. The former Carolina goaltender is a past proven performer, but for whatever reason this season he has had troubles finishing the games in a positive environment. He seems to regularly give up an easy goal that inevitably leads to a third period collapse and a frustrating loss for a team that plays well for two periods and then somehow loses their edge.

The howls for heads is reaching a fevered pitch in the Capital, Wednesday’s game with Buffalo a Rubicon of sorts for John Muckler if the media heads are to be believed. TSN dedicated a good portion of the intermission on their Tuesday night game to the question of Ottawa, the suggestion is that Eugene Melnyk will instruct President Roy Mlakar to do something drastic to shake up his underperforming squad.

The Globe and Mail’s Tim Wharnsby examined the staggering Sens situation and the possible outcome for the careers of Bryan Murray and John Muckler.

Pressure mounts on Sens' coach, GM
Ottawa suffers seventh loss in eight games

OTTAWA -- Bryan Murray is not worried about losing his job, even though the next 24 hours should be anxious and curious times for the Ottawa Senators' coach and his general manager, John Muckler.

Moments after his team was beaten for the seventh time in eight games, this time 6-3 by the Montreal Canadiens before a capacity crowd of 20,051 at Scotiabank Place last night, Murray was asked how much longer his team's funk can persist before he becomes concerned about losing his job.

"I'm not worried about my job as much as I'm trying to get these kids to play better hockey," Murray said. "We have a talented group that knows they can play better."

That talented group, which is off to a miserable 6-10-1 start, has struggled mightily in many areas of the game. Some nights, it's poor goaltending. Other games, it's mistakes in its own end. Other nights, the special teams have stumbled.

Senators president Roy Mlakar gave Murray and Muckler a vote of confidence last week, but in the time between last night's game and Ottawa's next game, in Buffalo against the Sabres tomorrow, the heat will be turned up to a full boil on Murray and Muckler.

Mlakar has been seen around the team more often lately. After the defeat last night, however, he was seen sauntering down the hall away from the Senators' dressing room and didn't look like a boss ready to clean house.

The Senators are 12th among the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference of the National Hockey League, and their docket does not become easier in the next seven days. They will play four games against divisional leaders -- the Sabres twice, the New Jersey Devils and the Minnesota Wild.

"None of these are easier for us right now the way we're playing," Murray said.

What went wrong for the Senators last night is that they were unable to take advantage of three-power play opportunities in the first period and instead gave up a short-handed goal to Montreal defenceman Mike Komisarek.

Although the Canadiens gave up three power-play goals in their worst outing of the season last Saturday in a 5-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Habs have the third best penalty-killing unit in the league. They have not only scored seven short-handed goals this season, but also have allowed only 12 goals while killing penalties.

"Our power play has been the biggest difference between this year and last year," said Murray, whose team has only two wins in eight games at home.

After tying the score on a late opening-period goal from Denis Hamel, the Senators played right into the hands of a patient Montreal team that employed a passive 1-2-2 fore-check system.
The Senators began turning the puck over far too often. As a result, an unguarded Radek Bonk was able to redirect an Alexander Perezhogin shot for a 2-1 lead, and the Senators gave their opponents two power plays early in the third period when they were trying to recover from mistakes.

Montreal rookie Guillaume Latendresse, 19, made the Senators pay with two man-advantage goals 31 seconds apart. Since the youngster replaced injured Chris Higgins on Montreal's first line three games ago, he has checked in with three goals and four points.

"I feel really comfortable," Latendresse said. "[New linemates] Saku [Koivu] and Rydie [Michael Ryder] have helped me a lot and that has given me a lot of confidence."

The Senators' power play finally clicked with goals from Patrick Eaves and Antoine Vermette later in the third period to put the Senators one goal behind, 4-3, but Mike Johnson scored from a bad angle and Alexei Kovalev added an empty-netter for Montreal.

Ottawa goalie Martin Gerber played a strong game, especially in the second period, and could be faulted only for the Johnson goal with 2 minutes 25 seconds remaining.

"Poor Martin," Murray said. "He gave up five goals and gave us a chance to win the game."

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