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Senators losing ground in playoff race with tough stretch of games upcoming

Very early in the Vancouver game, Senators forward Claude Giroux found himself wide open in the slot and ripped a shot off the inside of the post.

The puck stayed out, bounding harmlessly through the crease. As the camera panned to Giroux back at the bench, he screamed a single word, apparent to all who can read lips: “FRICK!!” Or, something close to that which can’t be repeated in family publications.

The moment was fairly representative of the Ottawa Senators Lost Weekend out west – back-to-back losses to Vancouver on Saturday (5-2) and Calgary on Sunday (5-1).

Though the Senators hung on to beat Seattle 5-4 on Thursday, this trip began with a 5-0 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday. So, the Sens have lost three of four and been outscored 15-3 in those losses.

This isn’t exactly the prescribed recipe for grabbing ahold of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, losing three games to teams not currently in playoff positions themselves.

Ottawa is certainly not out of the race but they have certainly lost precious ground.

When this trip began, the Senators were three points behind Pittsburgh and four back of the New York Islanders for the two wild-card spots in the east. Today the Sens are eight points behind the surging Penguins and six behind the Isles. Ottawa has two games in hand on the Isles. Part of the problem now is that the Senators have allowed teams around them, especially Florida, to be factors in the race again.

On top of everything else, the Senators are running out of runway. With 16 games remaining, they have to get hot in a hurry. It starts with yet another tough game left on this trip, Tuesday night in Edmonton, against a surly Oilers group that blew a lead in Toronto on Saturday night.

After that, the Senators return home to face Colorado on Thursday and the Leafs on Saturday.

This is turning out to be every bit the tough month of March that Senators head coach D.J. Smith was talking about, after everyone was patting him on the back for those back-to-back wins over the Detroit Red Wings to close out the February schedule.

On the bright side, the Senators are 3-3 for the month of March, which is how they started February before closing strong.

To repeat that trend, the Senators are going to have to clean up their play, including a nasty recent habit of giving up goals while on the power play. In their weekend losses, Ottawa got touched up with shorthanded goals by both the Canucks and Flames.

In the first period on Sunday, Calgary scored a shorthanded goal and a power play goal to take a 2-0 lead. Then, after handing the Senators a pure gift in the second period – a puck on a platter for Tim Stützle to tap into an open net, Calgary came right back and restored its two-goal lead with a goal by Jonathan Huberdeau one minute, eight seconds later.

It was a backbreaker.

“I don’t even know what to say anymore,” a frustrated Stützle said after the defeat in Calgary. “We’re not sharing pucks, we’re not breaking the puck out, we turn pucks over … and it ends up in the back of our net.”

There was a notion that the Senators would tighten up their defensive play, with the loss of their two starting goaltenders, Anton Forsberg and more recently, Cam Talbot. In reality, that hasn’t worked out, as teams are waltzing in on young goaltenders Mads Sogaard and Kevin Mandolese with glorious scoring opportunities.

It’s the kind of lax defensive play that made watching this team tortuous in November.

Mandolese faced 39 Calgary shots on Sunday and the Canucks took 30 on Sogaard. The quality of looks has been a bigger factor than the quantity of shots.

“What a spot to be thrown into,” veteran winger Austin Watson said of Ottawa’s young goalies. “You’ve got our top two guys down, and they had to come in and backstop some really important hockey games. They’ve done extremely well. They’re both confident guys. Mando was huge (Sunday) and made some great saves. The score could’ve been worse.

“You feel for him because you’d like to put a better effort in front of him.”

Watson made a strong point about his team’s lack of composure after getting behind in games.

“We’re quick to acknowledge that maturity in our game … but I think we’ve got to check ourselves and realize that the last few games have been a little immature in a sense,” Watson said. “Just the way we’ve gotten down and haven’t stuck to our plan.

“We’ve tried to stretch the game out and kinda tried to get it all back in one swoop. That’s the maturity we had been showing.”

Watson and veteran defenceman Travis Hamonic both insist the team can and will rebound from a distressing weekend.

“There’s no doubt there’s a ton of belief and desperation in this room,” Watson said.

“We’ve been resilient all season, we’ve faced a ton of adversity,” added Hamonic. “We’ve clawed our way back into the race, into the conversation, when everyone left us at the side of the road a couple of months ago.

“When we play our style we can play with every team in the league.”

The Senators may have further injury concerns. Both defenceman Thomas Chabot and forward Mathieu Joseph left the Calgary game and did not return. Joseph was cross-checked into the boards by Tyler Toffoli in the first period and left the ice favouring one leg. Chabot was hit by a shot in the third period and suffered an injury to either his foot or leg.

Smith said there will be further updates on the injuries today.


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