TORONTO – Times have certainly changed when you can say that the Ottawa Senators might learn a thing or two from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Long the class of the Battle of Ontario, the Sens seem to be slipping compared to their provincial rival. They were thoroughly outworked during Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the Maple Leafs in a game that was surprising not so much for the outcome, but for Ottawa’s seeming lack of desire.
After all, this is a team that is now 2-5-1 and just one point removed from the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
The Senators were outshot 21-9 by Toronto in the first period and found themselves trying to play catch-up the entire game. It was hardly a recipe for success.
“I thought we lost way too many races and battles for pucks in the first period,” said Senators coach Craig Hartsburg. “And to me, that’s the game. If you don’t have the puck, you chase it, and we didn’t check anybody off the puck.”
Ottawa is clearly the more talented of Ontario’s NHL teams but it hardly matters if the effort isn’t there. Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza found themselves back together during the loss in Toronto but the line was never a factor.
Instead, they were outdone by the likes of fourth-liners Shean Donovan and Dean McAmmond, who both scored goals for the Senators.
The mood in the visitors dressing room at Air Canada Centre was understandably sullen after the game. Trouble is in the air.
“Our effort right now just isn’t good enough and we need to turn this around as quick as we can,” said Alfredsson.
It won’t be easy with a game at division-leading Buffalo on Monday.
Ottawa finishes its road trip with games in Florida on Thursday and Tampa on Saturday and can expect to return home to plenty of speculation if it is still struggling after a swing through the Sunshine State.
The Sens might want to take a few cues from a Toronto team that has played some pretty spirited hockey of late.
The Maple Leafs outshot their opponents 113-73 during a three-game stretch where they earned five of a possible six points. The team had a pretty tough October schedule but has so far held its own with a 3-2-3 record.
“You’re seeing a lot of guys playing pretty well and we might be better than everybody expected,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “Maybe we’re just playing a little bit over our heads right now. But we’re getting better every day.
“Guys are improving and believing in what we’re doing and we can see the results.”
A big week lies ahead for 18-year-old defenceman Luke Schenn, who will play his ninth NHL game on Tuesday against Tampa. It’s extremely likely that he’ll skate in his 10th a night later in New Jersey – all but ensuring he’ll spend the whole season with the team.
He’s quickly become a popular man among his teammates because of his willingness to defend them. Schenn fought Chris Neil early in Saturday’s game after the Senators agitator caught Matt Stajan with a borderline knee-on-knee hit.
The defenceman ended up playing more than 21 minutes in the game, yet another sign he’s found a permanent spot on the team. However, he’s not taking anything for granted until he gets the official word.
“They haven’t told me anything,” said Schenn. “There’s obviously still a few more days and another game before they have to make a decision. For right now, I’m happy to be here and hoping to get better.”
That statement is basically a mantra for the rebuilding Maple Leafs.
Wilson deserves credit for getting so much out of a group of players he’s been working with for less than two months.
Hartsburg hasn’t quite been so successful in his first season with the Senators, and the Ottawa players know they’re largely to blame. Suddenly, the NHL season is almost 10 games old and they’ve dug themselves a hole.
“These games are just as important now as at the end of the season,” said Donovan. “We’ve just got to get going. This isn’t the way we want to play at all.”