The NHL’s best second-half team a little more than a week ago, the suddenly slumping Senators realize they’re in for a tough night when the rival Toronto Maple Leafs visit Thursday to continue their push for the playoffs.
“Basically, they’re in the playoffs now and we’ve got to play like that,” Senators defenceman Wade Redden said following Wednesday’s practice. “Just because we’ve got a few points up on them, we can’t be satisfied just stumbling into the playoffs.”
Stumbling is exactly what Ottawa has done in its past three games.
In each game, the Senators have blown third-period leads, losing to the Atlanta Thrashers in regulation and the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins in a shootout.
In Tuesday’s 5-4 loss to the Penguins, Ottawa led 4-1 with less than 12 minutes to play before caving.
“A week ago, we were the hottest team since Christmas,” coach Bryan Murray lamented. “Then you go into a little tailspin because a couple of players do things that they don’t have to do or we make a mistake just out of the process of playing a normal hockey game.”
One development that has to be setting off alarm bells for the Senators has been the play of Emery.
Emery had been mostly excellent this season after taking over the No. 1 job from a shaky Martin Gerber.
However, since Emery returned from a three-game suspension for slashing Montreal’s Maxim Lapierre in a Feb. 10 contest, he’s struggled and that’s not good news for the Senators heading down the stretch since he’ll be expected to carry the load in the playoffs.
“He said he hasn’t really felt as comfortable since his suspension as he did before,” Murray said.
Emery gave up three goals in 25 minutes before being kicked out in a now-infamous fighting incident in Buffalo in his first game back from suspension. He allowed five more goals against the Sabres the following game, although he still managed a win. He then shut out the Carolina Hurricanes in a game in which he faced minimal action before allowing three third-period goals in a 4-2 loss to Atlanta on Friday.
When he allowed three more third-period goals before being beaten twice in shootout by the Penguins on Tuesday, Emery said it was the best he’s felt since returning.
“It’s not focus, it’s just straight footwork and comfort,” Emery said of his troubles. “Even though it wasn’t my best game (Tuesday), I’m feeling a lot better.”
Meanwhile, Spezza suffered an undisclosed off-ice injury to his back Monday and was a last-minute scratch against the Penguins.
He didn’t practise Wednesday and will be a game-time decision Thursday.
“I’m not going to get into too many details. It was just a freak thing going about my daily business,” Spezza said of the injury, one that Murray seemed to be only half-joking about when he said it happened while his star centre was getting out of his car with shopping bags.
The initial fear was that the injury was a recurrence of the problem that forced the 23-year-old to undergo surgery last summer, but Spezza insisted it’s not related.
“Which is a good thing,” he said. “It’s a totally different kind of pain, but it’s not something that will nag me.”
With seven goals and 12 assists during an 11-game point streak that ended Tuesday, Spezza and the Senators are hoping for a quick cure to get him back in the lineup as early as Thursday, which is the first game in a home-and-home series that continues Saturday at Air Canada Centre.
While the Senators have been sliding, the Leafs are coming off a 3-0 victory over the Washington Capitals on Tuesday and have won two of their last three games to move into eighth in the Eastern Conference standings heading into Wednesday’s action.
Toronto handed the Senators a 3-2 shootout loss the last time they met Feb. 3 at Scotiabank Place.
“We had a tough time with them the last time we met them. They get a shutout last night,” Murray said. “We’re going to have to know that we have to play our ‘A’ game (Thursday), without question.”