Senators take pivotal trip

It's not an overstatement to suggest that the next two weeks for the Ottawa Senators could make, or break, their season.

Struggling Ottawa faces daunting prospect of 8-game road trip

Mike Fisher will look to rebound over the second half after injury and frustration early in the season. ((Ed Betz/Associated Press))
It's not an overstatement to suggest that the next two weeks for the Ottawa Senators could make, or break, their season.

With the world junior championship taking place in Ottawa, the struggling Senators are in the midst of an eight-game road trip.

The second game on the road takes place on Saturday, when the Senators pay their first visit in over three years to the Calgary Flames (CBC,, 9:30 p.m. ET).

"I think it'd be good maybe just to get away and kind of come together as a team," centre Mike Fisher said before Ottawa departed. "Sometimes a good road trip will do that."

Such optimism was a good first step, but Ottawa (12-15-5) went out and dropped a 6-4 game in Philadelphia in the road opener.

Owner Eugene Melynk was keeping the faith before the trip. Melynk said the Senators would return from their trip to a "hero's welcome" and that the rest of the league will be stunned come March to see how far the club has climbed the standings.

No pressure.

Coach Craig Hartsburg's charges won't play at home until Jan. 10, against the New York Rangers.

Why has Ottawa been so disappointing through the first 40 per cent of their schedule?

The first period of many games has been a showcase of missed opportunity. Ottawa scored just 20 times through 30 opening periods, rivalling Edmonton for worst in the league.

"Craig [Hartsburg] keeps saying it - we're not prepared to play at the start of the game and we get behind the eight ball," said defenceman Brendan Bell.

Bell is right to an extent, but the vexing part is that the Senators have allowed only 23 goals in the opening period, ranking with the best totals in the NHL.

In other words, even just a modest increase in early goals would have put Ottawa in playoff position as their trip beckoned, instead of eight points behind the pace.

In the past two years, goaltenders Ray Emery and Martin Gerber have often been convenient scapegoats, but it's less cut-and-dried in net this season.

Alex Auld and Gerber have posted numbers that may not be eye-opening, but they are respectable.

On the eve of the trip, Auld had a .913 save percentage, 5/100ths higher than Gerber. Both percentages were higher than several NHL goalies, including Miikka Kiprusoff, Martin Biron, Dan Ellis and Evgeni Nabokov.

For all the harping in the Ottawa media about how Gerber sinks the team with his occasional soft goals at bad times, until the 5-4 win over Dallas last Saturday, the Senators skaters haven't exactly done a great job of helping out their Swiss goalie, either.

Before his stinker against the Stars, Gerber in his previous three games had allowed a grand total of six goals. Ottawa scored a total of two goals in those three games, losing every contest.

Last season, Gerber allowed three or fewer goals in 13 of 22 losses, a fairly high percentage considering the Senators fancied themselves a high-scoring team last year.

While the special teams haven't been scintillating, they too haven't been a huge cause. Rather, the club is third-worst in the NHL in terms of 5-on-5 goal differential.

Stars Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza are indeed all off the pace they established in the previous three seasons, but the club's scoring woes have been a reverse "trickle down," if you will. 

Antoine Vermette with his arms aloft is a sight Ottawa fans would like to see more often. ((Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images))
Once you go down the roster, there's just a trickle of production. Hartsburgh recently hit on the crux of the club's biggest problem.

"This is a team," said Hartsburg. "It's not about three stars and 17 plumbers. That's the mentality and that's the identity of this team, and it's no good."

The top trio had accounted for 36 of the team's 73 goals through Dec. 21.  No team in the conference has such top-heavy production.

Not Atlanta or Tampa Bay, with there's a big skill disparity between players on the first and third lines. Not even the Sabres, where Thomas Vanek's 24 goals rank second in the league.

There were positive signs against Dallas. Antoine Vermette scored for the first time in 20 games, while Fisher and Nick Foligno had a pair of assists. Foligno then helped give Ottawa the rare quick start in Philadelphia, putting them up 1-0.

Those three players, as well as Chris Kelly, need to pick up some offensive slack and fast if the team is to prosper.

Vermette has six points in 32 games after showing signs of reaching another level last season with 53 points. Fisher, who's battled injury problems, is well off the pace of 45-48 points he's previously set.

The Senators received goals from defencemen Alex Picard and Jason Smith against Dallas and did a good job of driving to the net.

Both things will need to continue regularly for any hope of a season turnaround. Picard leads Ottawa defencemen with 45 shots, a number that places him just 62nd among NHL blue liners.

Last season, a team with 94 points clung to the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. This season, more parity so far has the last playoff seed currently on an 89-point pace.

The second total is 60 points away for the Senators, with 50 games to play.

The task is formidable for Ottawa, and the team will need a few more plumbers to emerge from the depths.

With files from the Canadian Press