BOSTON – Desperation hovers over the Ottawa Senators like a black shroud. And matters grow darker and more desperate with each passing day.
Things are so desperate that Sens owner Eugene Melnyk felt compelled to issue a statement the other day, saying he’s not making any changes. No changes yet, at least.
Things are so desperate that the Senators now find their playoff hopes in tatters, following the conclusion of their disastrous eight-game (1-6-1) road trip.
And it’s only January.
One waits for the next shoe to drop.
Or head to roll.
And that, Melnyk’s pronouncement to the contrary, could happen any day now.
If reports prove to be true, Senators coach Craig Hartsburg will be shown the door just half a season into a three-year contract.
Following on his heels would be the man who hired him, Sens’ GM Bryan Murray.
And with Pat Quinn, fresh from a successful run as Team Canada’s coach in the World Junior Championships (conveniently staged in Ottawa’s home rink, the ScotiaBank Place) tanned, rested, and ready for a comeback, the stories are all too plausible.
Just read between the lines of Melnyk’s extraordinary “the news is that there is no news" statement, issued Wednesday through the club.
“Contrary to what is being reported today by the media,” it read in part, “I have made no decisions with respect to any personnel changes within the Senators organization. Winning remains our No. 1 priority and there is a collective focus by our management, our coaching staff and our players to deliver this to our fans.”
Heck, even the dreaded vote of confidence – a sure sign that the axe is about to swing – is cheerier than that.
And yet Melnyk continued, tersely and tellingly.
“This is crunch time,” he said. “Now, more than ever, is the time to rally behind our team. We don’t surrender halfway though the season.”
The second half of the season should be a beauty.
Ottawa slinked out of Boston Thursday night with a 6-4 loss, 13 points out of the final playoff spot, and five teams to climb over just to reach eighth place.
If there is any sure thing these days, it’s that Ottawa’s string of 11 straight playoff appearances is toast.
And this from a team less than two seasons removed from the Stanley Cup Finals. Ottawa fans are shocked. Melnyk is shocked. And the Sens themselves admit to being a little surprised.
“Yes, I am,” Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson said. “Having said that, if you look back at the last 12 months since we started this slide, it’s been a process. We can’t expect ourselves to be a top team. At times we’ve been getting too frustrated. We’ve got to find a way to win, and when you don’t do it, you’re confidence goes way down.”
On Thursday, the Senators found another way to lose. This after clawing themselves back from a pair of two-goal deficits against the Bruins to pull in to a 3-3 third-period tie.
But if the old chestnut about “the best players” leading the way is true, then Senators’ on ice leadership has failed them badly.
A win over the Bruins would have given Ottawa at least a little something to build on as they headed home to lick their wounds.
And it was Alfredsson’s gift-wrapped turnover to David Krejci deep in his own end midway through the third period that Krejci cashed in for the go-ahead goal.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be as easy to win games as it had been in the past," Alfredsson said. "I don’t think anybody expected the way the season has gone for us, so far. It’s tough. It’s been a real frustrating year.”
The frustration reached near boiling point following the game, when the embattled Hartsburg, perhaps seeing his own fate already sealed, placed the onus for the loss on his marquee trio.
"Those guys cost us the game,” Hartsburg said, without batting an eye. "You trust your good players, and they cost us the game.”
To his credit, Alfredsson walked into the nearly vacant Senators dressing room and pulled the blame onto his shoulders.
“That’s an understatement,” he said in response to Hartsburg’s beat down. “It’s an awful feeling for everybody. This was a game that (could have) gotten us going. We battled back into a tie, and I make one move, and they go in and score the winner. It’s my fault. I’m trying to do too much.”
The question now is what else is there to do?
You can bench the players responsible, but can Alfredsson lead from the press box?
You can shake up the goaltending – which cost previous coach John Paddock his job when he mishandled flameout net minder Ray Emery – by benching starter Martin Gerber and bringing up highly touted prospect Brian Elliot. But do you want to ask a rookie to salvage your season, and your jobs?
And, of course, if you’re Melnyk, you can make another statement, this time by clearing out Murray and Hartsburg and starting over. But with half a season to play, will that make any difference?
“As players, you never want to see change,” said Spezza. “We just want to win hockey games. And when you’re winning, nobody’s ever getting changed. You never like to see any changes in the locker room.”
Change, however, is exactly what you’re likely to see.
Hey, what is it they say about desperate times?
- Eugene Melnyk