OTTAWA – The Senators losing at home to the slumping Calgary Flames on Friday wasn’t all that shocking considering Ottawa’s own struggles this season.
The bigger surprise, however, may have been that when the Senators returned to the ice Saturday to begin preparation for their next game, it was with the same group that’s lost seven of the past eight contests and sits 13th in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
Despite constant speculation that changes are coming, it remained status quo—from general manager Bryan Murray in the stands to coach Cory Clouston and the players—for a team whose playoff hopes fade with each defeat.
The most recent, a 3-2 loss to a Flames team that had dropped its previous four before Friday and was in 14th place in the Western Conference, left the Senators 11 points out of a playoff spot before Saturday’s games and the players awaiting any personnel changes.
Other than backup goaltender Robin Lehner being returned to Binghamton in order to get an American Hockey League start, there were none, and Murray declined to speak with reporters.
“Obviously, I don’t think anyone’s happy and I can’t speculate because I don’t know, but I don’t know if there’s really anything out there,” left-winger Nick Foligno said when asked about management’s intentions. “And I think they believe in us and we believe in ourselves.
“From the outside looking in, it looks like we’re a troubled team, but it’s a lot of things that we can control that are the reason why we’re losing games. It’s frustrating for fans and people not within the team, but we feel we still have a team that can win.”
The fans and media in Ottawa likely don’t agree.
A sellout crowd Friday booed the team as it fell behind 3-0 to Calgary, particularly when it allowed three 2-on-1 chances during the same Senators’ power-play opportunity.
A column in one of the city’s major newspapers Saturday implored the team to relieve Clouston of his duties after he elected to start Brian Elliott in goal ahead of Lehner, the 19-year-old rookie who backstopped Ottawa to a 6-4 win over the New York Islanders on Thursday night for their first victory since Boxing Day.
The relief from talk of trade and/or firings that win provided was short-lived.
“It’s obviously in the back of our minds, but we can’t focus on that,” Foligno said. “That’s all part of the business that we can’t control and, right now, we’re not in a position where we need to worry about that.
“We all want to see each other stay, we like the group of guys we have here, we think we can win together and we’ve got to go out there and start proving it. That’s the bottom line, really.”
Defenceman Chris Campoli recently suffered as a result of his team’s struggles. He sat out the past two games as a healthy scratch after finishing minus-4 in a 6-0 loss to Boston on Tuesday and being involved in a fight with right-winger Chris Neil during practice the following day.
“When things don’t go well, changes are a reality,” said Campoli, whom Clouston said will return to the lineup Sunday when the Senators travel to Washington to play the Capitals.
“We still have a chance here with this group to turn things around, but the window’s getting smaller and smaller and we know that. Really, you’ve just got to come, put your best foot forward, prepare to play, be professional, work hard and take care of yourself individually preparing to play the game.”
For the time being, the current group of Senators continue to get that chance, but for how long? The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 28, but Ottawa will be able to figure out where it’s headed in terms of the playoffs in the next couple of weeks.
Clouston, whose contract is up following the season as is Murray’s as GM, insisted motivating his players beyond playing out the string won’t be a problem.
“They’re pros, and we still think we can win,” he said. “We’re so close to putting two, three, four wins together, the guys still have confidence in their game and, to me, that’s what it’s all about: staying positive, trying to improve each game, each day and work on the things that we need to work on and play with pride, as well.”
Among fans and the media in Ottawa, the consensus seems to be forgetting about the post-season and planning for next year, with or without Clouston and Murray in the picture.
The players, however, don’t think it’s come to that yet.
“We’ve got a lot of character in this room, nobody’s quitting and we still believe in ourselves,” Foligno said. “We still feel we have a chance to make the playoffs, we’re going to just take it one game at a time and we’re real disappointed we let that one slip away (Friday), but we have a real good chance against Washington, another Eastern Conference team, to right the wrong.”