“Your home is regarded as a model home, your life as a model life. But all this splendor, and you along with it… it’s just as though it were built upon a shifting quagmire. A moment may come, a word can be spoken, and both you and all this splendor will collapse.”
– Henrik Ibsen, legendary Norwegian playwright
You probably didn’t expect to read a quote from a famous dramatist in a column about hockey. But the Ottawa Senators probably didn’t expect they’d still be looking to qualify for a playoff berth with just two games remaining in their regular season.
However, that’s precisely what’s happening, because the Sens’ house – so recently praised as one of the NHL’s most admired – has seen its base crumble slowly and painfully, and with it the swagger that helped power them to last year’s Stanley Cup final.
By now, everybody knows how amazing Ottawa looked at the start of this season, which they began by winning 15 of their first 17 games. Everybody knows how important it seemed to lock up all of their young stars – Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, Ray Emery, Mike Fisher – to long-term contracts, which GM Bryan Murray and owner Eugene Melnyk did without hesitation.
But immediately after that 15-2 streak, the franchise’s foundation showed its first cracks. The Sens won just twice in their next 10 games. By then, Emery had returned from rehabilitating a wrist injury, yet had the starting goalie’s job taken away from him by Martin Gerber.
Perhaps that’s when the seeds of discontent were planted in Emery’s immature mind, because when he finally played in eight of Ottawa’s 10 games starting in late November, he didn’t have a save percentage higher than .898. (In fact, each and every game Emery has played since Nov. 1 has ended with him posting a sub-.900 save percentage.)
But Emery’s sub-par play didn’t put a halt to his above-par arrogance, so he sulked and stewed while then-coach John Paddock hemmed and hawed, hoping the situation would somehow sort itself out.
It never did, and in part due to the fishbowl existence all NHLers endure when playing for a Canadian team, the Sens’ net problems were dissected and debated endlessly amongst the locals.
Quickly, fans and media were of three separate camps – Team Emery, Team Gerber, and Team Please Tell Me There’s Another Option Out There – and none of the power players involved could come up with conclusive evidence their plan was the best one.
Perhaps that’s when the locker room really started to fragment, because the hockey world soon became rife with rumors that the Senators were a divided group in the dressing room. They were still a healthy 25-9-4 when New Year’s Day began, but, as evidenced by their 7-7 record in January, a sense of malaise was on the verge of full bloom.
As is the case in virtually every sporting or political quagmire, swift solutions to Ottawa’s problems were set aside in favor of the blame game. Most people correctly saw Emery as the root cause of the team’s internal dissent, but there was no consensus as to how he needed to be dealt with.
Instead of banishing Emery to the minors, waiving him, or just sending him home for the remainder of the year, Murray chose to tweak the cast around him. He moved Joe Corvo and Patrick Eaves to Carolina for Mike Commodore and Cory Stillman, and brought in veteran leader Martin Lapointe from Chicago at the trade deadline.
Murray wasn’t finished with the renovations, as he ended Paddock’s lilting tenure as coach the day after the trade deadline, and returned to the bench boss role he’d excelled in last season.
If that was supposed to be the healing elixir, it turned out to be magic beans without the magic. The Sens went just 6-6-2 in March, continuing on autopilot while teams above and below them in the standings supercharged their engines for a drag race to the post-season.
All the while, the rot remained. Despite keeping the core of the team that looked so good en route to the Cup final last year, Ottawa had not an ounce of the cohesiveness. They looked lackadaisical on the ice, unsure of their abilities, tentative to the point of paralysis.
And that brings us to the point the Sens are at now. They’ve got just two games left to qualify for a lower-tier post-season berth, and still there’s no evidence a turnaround is anywhere close to appearing on the horizon.
Emery shouldn’t get all the blame for that reality. But as Ibsen noted, all it takes is a word, or a moment, for a splendid situation to sour.
Clearly, that word, or moment has come and gone; all but dooming Ottawa’s Cup hopes this season in its wake.
Their collapse isn’t quite complete, but dreams of year-to-year domination appear as far away now as they were when the Sens were expansion fodder.
Adam Proteau is The Hockey News’ online columnist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his Ask Adam feature appears Tuesdays and Fridays, and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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