The wounds fresh, Jason Spezza said some interesting things following the Senators’ excruciating loss to Florida.
For one, the Senators captain let us know he took zero pleasure in scoring a highlight reel goal in a losing cause, telling reporters the goal “doesn’t count for (expletive)” because the Panthers turned that 2-1 Ottawa lead on its head and outlasted the Senators 4-2.
“I could care less about the goal,” Spezza said.
It was a rather captain-y stance by a player once considered merely a points-producer, back when the bulk of leadership duties fell on the shoulders of Daniel Alfredsson. Spezza reminded us how much he hates to lose, and always did.
Spezza also touched on something else, admitting that the pressure of trying to squeeze out wins, to crawl back in the wild card hunt, is getting to the Senators. These December “must-win” situations, for players whose morale is lower than the Canadian dollar, aren’t bringing the best out of a bedraggled bunch.
“It’s clear that we’re feeling the pressure right now, we’re feeling the heat,” Spezza said, after the Panthers game. “We want to try to win hockey games. Our effort is there but we don’t execute, we don’t play loose enough with the puck ... we’re scared to make mistakes at the end. That’s the position we’ve got ourselves in, so we have to find a way to get out.”
Pressure? Here’s a thought: maybe it’s time for the Senators to stop thinking about standing among the lords of the NHL elite and act more like the 12th place team they are. In other words, play relaxed, adopt a spoilers mentality — “just play hockey” — as Erik Karlsson suggested Friday. Loose, but not careless: try to enjoy this kid’s game and who knows what might happen.
A few weeks ago, the 14th place Panthers did that, and look where they are today: sitting on a five-game winning streak, a single point behind the Senators in the standings, visions of wild card contention dancing in their heads.
(Pregnant pause ... who imagined the Panthers as a role model for the Senators?).
Florida changed its coach on Nov. 8, bringing in Peter Horachek to replace Kevin Dineen (now coaching the Canadian women’s Olympic team). After the initial adjustment, the Panthers adapted to Horachek’s style and have developed into a tough out most nights, led by the play of exciting youngsters like Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Erik Gudbranson and good old Brian Campbell.
Horacheck’s first assignment was the Nov. 9 game in Ottawa, a 3-2 Senators victory. Since then, his team has gone 11-7-1.
The Panthers weren’t worried about the pressure of making the playoffs. But they eked out a Nov. 12 win over Anaheim, and soon after, back-to-back victories over Colorado and Vancouver, the prelude to this current run.
When Spezza was asked Friday what the Senators might do to relax, he answered in a word: “Win.
“Really, all you can do is win,” Spezza said. “You see Florida talking after the game about how they’re a confident group, when they were down 2-1 they felt they had a chance to win.
“That’s what happens when you start winning games, you feel like you’re doing enough to win. When you’re losing, you feel the opposite. You feel tighter and you’re scared to make mistakes. And we’re at that point right now.
“There’s no reason for us not to get to the point where Florida’s at, where we can win some games and get some confidence back.”
General manager Bryan Murray and head coach Paul MacLean called out the leaders on the Senators after Wednesday’s 5-2 loss in New Jersey, a move fraught with risk. So far, the move hasn’t been a disaster, as the leadership core of Spezza, Chris Neil, Chris Phillips and the rest responded with a strong game against the Panthers, even if the Senators lost.
Spezza has enormous respect for Murray, and any player who does would feel “embarrassed,” to use Spezza’s word, that the GM felt obliged to visit the dressing room to express his disappointment in Ottawa’s 14-17-6 record.
Management and coaches have tried everything else, including keeping players calm during the moments of the game when execution can make the difference between winning and losing. Thursday, the Senators were on a power play late in the third when defenceman Erik Karlsson fell on what looked like a triple lutz attempt. “Caught a rut,” he says. “Life sucks sometimes.” The Panthers skated up ice and iced the game with a short-handed goal.
“We try to tell them to breathe at the timeouts, encourage them when they come off to get ready for the next shift, but we can’t go on the ice and play for them,” MacLean said. “We try to give them support and encourage them at those times of the game but that’s about all we can do.
“When you’re there more often, you get way more comfortable at it.”
Saturday brings another chance to get “there,” with the Phoenix Coyotes in town.
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