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MacGregor: Sens experiment in practice to salvage topsy-turvy season

The Senators have gone 5-11-3 in games not against their division rivals, including an ugly 4-1 loss last week against the Hurricanes.

Karl B DeBlaker/AP

It was a morning in the nation's capital where everything felt upside down and backward.

The biggest trade in hockey history had just been announced – and it hadn't involved a single player.

The broadcast rights to the national game had been ripped from TSN – popularly slagged in Ottawa as the "Toronto Sports Network" – and from iconic CBC and handed, instead, to a community broadcaster better known for morning recipes than evening sporting events.

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And Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza and Bobby Ryan, the three best players on the Ottawa Senators, were now all shooting left instead of right.

In a way, it all seemed appropriate. During a morning where the hockey world had turned on its ear, in a season when the Senators had been turned up and down more often than a motel bed, head coach Paul MacLean suggested his struggling players start their practice by switching hands.

Then, after he allowed them to switch back, he had them scrimmage with two pucks – again appropriate for a team that features two very different faces.

Put them up against a team that matters, and the Senators will matter. Put them up against a team they should beat … and you may as well put your money on the underdog.

Last weekend was Ottawa's season in a microcosm: Handily defeat the mighty Detroit Red Wings 4-2 in their own rink, then collapse the next day while leading a game against the lowly Carolina Hurricanes and fall 4-1.

TSN analyst Ian Mendes broke down the first quarter of Ottawa's season in a most-telling way: Against their main playoff competitors – Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens and Detroit – the Senators are an impressive 4-0-1 and have outscored the opposition 22-11; against everyone else, they're 5-11-3 and have been outscored 66-46.

After their unusual practice, the Senators flew off to Washington to meet the Capitals on Wednesday. They will play host to the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday, and the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday, when beloved former captain Daniel Alfredsson will make his first appearance in Ottawa since he left as a free agent.

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The approximately one million NHL general managers who make the National Capital Region their home have said Alfredsson – ever reliable, always the calming influence – is the difference between this year's scrambling team, currently tied for 11th in the Eastern Conference, and last year's surprisingly successful "Pesky Sens" that went two rounds into the playoffs.

But, of course, it is not quite as simple as that.

The goaltending of Craig Anderson and backup Robin Lehner has not been up to what it was a year ago, but as MacLean insisted Tuesday, both "have been very consistent. We have to play better in front of them."

The armchair experts have other explanations, as well. The defence is sorely missing veteran Sergei Gonchar, also lost to free agency (Dallas Stars), and the much-praised young blueline led by Jared Cowen has not been as advertised.

Then there is the matter of Spezza, Alfredsson's heir as captain. His line, usually with Milan Michalek and Cory Conacher, has been far from the team's top line – that honour going to Kyle Turris, Ryan and Clarke MacArthur.

Some in Ottawa are calling Spezza the Senators' Mats Sundin, a hugely-gifted playmaker not given the wingers he needs to have the impact he could have on a game.

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The calls for a trade grow louder with each passing stumble.

In the end, of course, this is all just armchair talk. One explanation that requires no expertise is there for all to see: dumb penalties, bad decisions.

"You can't take penalties," Ryan said of the match Wednesday against Caps star Alexander Ovechkin, the league's leading goal scorer. "They're going to kill you."

"You can't have less power plays than you have penalty kills," Spezza added.

The best way to cut back on penalties, according to MacLean, is simple: "Have the puck more. And defend with your feet, not reaching with your stick."

What MacLean wants to see his players do is skate through their checks and keep on going. Instead, he says, they get lazy and reach for the puck, the reach coming up short and too often turning into a trip, a hook – and in an instant, the Senators are playing shorthanded again. And likely losing.

"We've got to make sure we're disciplined," defenceman Marc Methot said.

"We're disappointed," Spezza said. "We haven't been able to string together two or three wins. We're not looking at the standings right now. We're just trying to win hockey games.

"Once we start winning, we'll look at the standings then."

And pray they'll be upside down to what they are today.

Follow me on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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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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