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MacGregor: Senators going down swinging, but it’s too little, too late

Ottawa Senators Matt Kassian (right) fights with Calgary Flames Kevin Westgarth during second period NHL action Sunday March 30, 2014 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

What do you have to do?

The Ottawa Senators soundly defeated the Calgary Flames 6-3 here Sunday evening, yet there is more hope to be found in Calgary these days than in snowbound Ottawa.

The Senators might be heading out of March like a lion – seven points over their past four games – but having played so much of the rest of the season like a lost lamb there is precious little faith in the nation's capital that it can amount to anything.

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Ottawa has yet to be mathematically eliminated from postseason play, but most feel it has become a mere formality. Most, but certainly not all.

"I still say I'm going to like where we are after 82 games," head coach Paul MacLean said after the victory. "I may be dreaming, but I've got to believe."

The game made for an intriguing examination of expectations. Last season, the rebuilding Senators rode spectacular goaltending into the second round of the playoffs, despite serious injuries to some of the team's top players. Such an unexpected performance led to MacLean being awarded the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year.

So miserable was Calgary's previous season that the Flames decided to dismantle and start from scratch. They brought in a new coach, Bob Hartley, and in December fired general manager Jay Feaster, with new president of hockey operations Brian Burke taking de facto control of that post.

Today, Ottawa stands ahead of Calgary in the standing – still in 12th place in the East with 76 points – while the Flames are in 13th place (second last) in the West with 69 points. With eight games remaining, Ottawa is six points shy of a playoff spot; Calgary is 15 points out with only seven games left.

And yet, just this week the Calgary Sun called the Flames "Canada's Feel Good Team" in what has generally been a winter/spring of discontent in the country that invented the game.

The Flames had three standing ovations during their three most recent home games. Hartley has suddenly become a name in the suggestion box for the 2014 Jack Adams Award.

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In Ottawa, MacLean's roster decisions – starting young goaltender Robin Lehner instead of Craig Anderson, who was brilliant Friday night as the Senators downed the powerful Chicago Blackhawks 5-3, sitting out popular local defenceman Cody Ceci against the Flames – are hotly debated even if, on this day, it all worked out.

While the Sun calls the Flames the "Little Team that Could," the Ottawa media see the Senators as the team that should have, but didn't.

"We have been doing a lot of things really well," said Calgary veteran Mike Cammalleri, who has played splendidly since he did not get moved, as was widely expected, at the trading deadline.

The Flames have been the NHL's top-scoring team in recent weeks and are increasingly admired for how hard they work and how well youngsters like defenceman Tyler Wotherspoon and forward Sean Monahan have fit in. The Senators have been long condemned for their seeming lack of 60-minute effort and how so many of the young players, particularly on defence, have struggled.

Flames fans are over the moon about young prospect Johnny Gaudreau, the Boston College forward who had a hat trick against Denver this week in the NCAA tournament.

Senators fans are despondent over the fact that the team will have no first-round pick in the June draft, that selection now belonging to Anaheim Ducks after the summer's trade for Bobby Ryan. Ryan is out for the remainder of the year, having undergone a successful sports hernia surgery this week.

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Sunday afternoon against these Flames, however, the Senators gave a glimpse of what had been anticipated this year. They went ahead 1-0 when Milan Michalek tipped a first-period Erik Karlsson point shot past Calgary goaltender Karri Ramo; Calgary's Matt Stajan tied the game shortly afteron a one-timer from the slot that beat Lehner. Michalek then restored the Ottawa lead, and when he was perfectly set up by a dipsy-doodling Jason Spezza, who slid a backhand pass across the slot that left Michalek with an empty net; Calgary's Paul Byron, another Calgary youngster, tied the game at 2-2 when he had the third Calgary attempt in a chaotic goalmouth scramble, with Monahan, who played his junior hockey in Ottawa, putting the Flames ahead when the 19-year-old walked out from the right boards and ripped a hard shot into the short side. It was the rookie's 20th goal of the season.

The Senators, however, then decided to put together the game so rarely seen over the past several months, scoring four straight times: Kyle Turris tying the game late in the second; Jared Cowen following a botched clearing by Ramo; Clarke MacArthur on a beautiful feed from Turris; and Turris into an empty net.

The Senators will meet the Carolina Hurricanes here Monday night, with Carolina also hoping to turn a late surge into hope rather than futility.

"Let's catch a few teams here and see what happens," MacArthur said.

"You just never know."

Based on recent evidence, you do not.

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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