OTTAWA - In a season featuring more lows than highs, the Ottawa Senators reached new depths Tuesday.
Colby Armstrong scored twice and the Atlanta Thrashers - owners of one of the worst records in the NHL - thoroughly outplayed the Senators in a 4-1 victory.
Vyacheslav Kozlov and Todd White added goals for the Thrashers (10-16-4), while Chris Kelly had the lone Senators goal, ending Ondrej Pavelec's shutout bid with 1:18 left in the third period.
Following the game, Ottawa players held a brief closed-door meeting to discuss - yet again - the ongoing problems of a team expected to cruise into the post-season.
After slipping to 11-13-5 with Tuesday's defeat - good for 12th in the Eastern Conference - a playoff berth is far from a certainty.
"It seems we've been struggling with consistency the whole year," said captain Daniel Alfredsson. "We win one game here, play good a couple of games, play bad a couple of games, but we're just not showing what we can do as a team."
Coach Craig Hartsburg, whose team has just four goals in its past four games, offered a more sobering assessment.
"It was very poor," said Hartsburg. "You can't even try to hide that or disguise it. It was poor.
"This is a step backwards for sure, no question it's an awful step backwards."
Hartsburg went on to say that his team failed to show any desperation or work ethic from the very start of the game.
"It wasn't like it was one line or two lines, it was everybody other than a couple guys," said Hartsburg. "It's frustrating, disappointing, angry, everything, all emotions."
The two players that Hartsburg couldn't fault was Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu.
Neil brought the crowd of 18,746 out of its funk when he levelled Atlanta's Bryan Little with just under two minutes left in the second period. On the ensuing play, Ruutu and Jim Slater exchanged punches.
Rather than building on that momentum in the third, the Senators opened the period with Dany Heatley taking a hooking penalty.
On the ensuing power play, Armstrong scored the first of his two goals, beating Martin Gerber on a wraparound. Gerber finished with 25 saves.
Thirty seconds, later Armstrong put the game out of reach as he converted a chance untouched from the side of the net as Gerber seemed to lose sight of the puck.
It was Armstrong's first multi-goal game of the season. The gritty forward, who hadn't scored since Nov. 30, has six goals on the year.
White scored an empty-net goal on a late power play to make it 4-1. The Thrashers went 3-for-6 with the man advantage in the game.
Pavelec stopped 28 shots in making just his tenth start of the season.
The Thrashers opened the scoring midway through the first period on a power-play goal by Kozlov, as he deflected a shot by Ron Hainsey.
Players are tired and frustrated at the situation, and few have answers for their predicament.
"We've just got to get back to simple things and be mentally strong," said Mike Fisher. "We've got to get past that mentally and be good professionals."
In the past the Senators have often been criticized for their lack of mental toughness and unless things drastically change it's likely the same or worse will be said of this group.
"It's something we know we need to be better at," added Fisher. "If we can get through this and make some steps to be a team I think it's really going to help us down the stretch. We know we're going to have to be really good and that's a good challenge for us and we're up for the challenge."
Notes: The Senators were without D Anton Volchenkov (lower body, day-to-day), RW Dean McAmmond (flu, indefinite) D Christoph Schubert was a healthy scratch. ... The Thrashers were without D Mathieu Schneider (shoulder, day-to-day), D Zach Bogosian (fibula, indefinite), C Erik Christensen (shoulder, day-to-day), G Kari Lehtonen (back, indefinite).