OTTAWA -- This Scotiabank Place, dubbed The Red Zone, sounds as if it's ready to become a Dead Zone. This capital region populace nicknamed the Sens Army and its marketing cry of One Mission has at least One Skirmish left and, the way some of the lines were drawn yesterday, it smacked of a white flag getting hoisted for Game 4 tonight against the Penguins.
First, coach/general manager Bryan Murray indicated that roster changes are in the offseason offing for these Ottawa Senators, just 10 months removed from being a Stanley Cup finalist.
Then, Jason Spezza talked about keeping the franchise's young core together.
Even for one night, Spezza next asked publicly, let's reunite the big guns.
Captain comeback Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Spezza -- the trio that powered the Senators' playoff run last spring and topped all NHL postseason scorers -- "Put the three of us back together," Spezza exhorted in front of a couple of media members after practice yesterday, "and let's go down swinging."
Most inside the Senators' dressing room tried to invoke diplomacy, tried to say the right things. This after Murray huddled them together and likened the 0-3 road ahead to the one-and-done format of the NCAA tournament. Funny, 40 good minutes of play works in March Madness basketball, but it still leaves you about one period short in the NHL's April anarchy.
Yet there existed small signs of resignation and huge billboards of frustration.
"We have nothing to lose, almost," defenseman Chris Phillips offered. Almost?
"Obviously, we're not as good as we were last year," said Alfredsson, who returned roughly 4 1/2 weeks earlier than doctors initially diagnosed for his MCL tear, or head-back-knee injuries, or whatever actually afflicts him. "We've got to find a way to compete out there for 60 minutes. We thought if we made the playoffs, we could do some damage. Obviously, having some injuries doesn't help. It's been a frustrating thing. Hopefully, we can put a positive end on this."
An Ottawa season that opened with a record-setting, 13-1 start could well end tonight, the curtain coming down in a hurry. The Senators face elimination in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal, having lost three consecutive games to the Penguins, having lost seven of their past eight games overall, 10 of 13 and 28 of 42.
"We don't know why the season turned awry at Christmastime, or whenever it did," Spezza said.
They ended a long scoring drought Friday in Game 2 and tied it, 3-3, only to take another penalty and lose on a power-play goal. They scored first Monday in Game 3, yet managed to hold their first lead for only 4 1/2 minutes of the 180 so far ("As soon as we got a lead, we didn't play as hard as I'd like. We were just waiting for something negative to happen," Murray said). They "finally," to invoke Murray's word, received a third-period power play late Monday, but a half-minute later Cory Stillman and Heatley both got penalties ... and the Penguins scored on the man-advantage. The Senators have mustered four goals in three games after averaging three per contest last spring, when, Spezza said, they regularly "scored game-winners, clutch goals, made a lot of big plays."
This spring, Spezza and Heatley each have one assist, period. Alfredsson, absent 10 days, made a stirring comeback Monday from injuries received in the regular season's penultimate game against Toronto -- he even got a standing ovation Monday when it was announced he just participated in his 100th playoff contest. He launched two of the 14 first-period shots that remains the series high for Ottawa, yet the boost he provided couldn't translate into goals.
Murray remarked of his captain's comeback: "This guy has nothing but courage. The timetable I was given in Toronto was not very promising unless we got to the finals."
A trip to the final for the Senators doesn't appear as plausible as it did at the torrid start of their season. Murray spoke in particular about the future, but not a potential Game 5, 6 or 7 -- things this franchise failed to experience the two of the three other times it fell behind 0-3 (1999 and 2001).
"Without a doubt, that's what I think about all the time," Murray said of the Game 4 perspective from scouting, personnel and other general manager stuff. "How are we going to make adjustments going forward so we're not going to be in this predicament in the second half and the playoffs? [Tonight] is an indicator of that."
"The fortunate thing is, we're pretty young still and can learn from it," Spezza (24) said of such Senators as Heatley (27), injured Mike Fisher (27), Anton Volchenkov (26), Antoine Vermette (25), Andrej Meszaros (22). "I think blowing this thing up would be a drastic move. Obviously, there is disappointment ..."
Murray added of tonight, "I believe they'll play hard."
And if they don't? If they go down hardly swinging at all?
Defenseman Mike Commodore said, "I'll be extremely embarrassed if that happens."
"If we are going to lose this series," Spezza said, "you want to be able to look your teammates in the eye."
First Published April 16, 2008 4:00 AM