Anyone out there who, like me, thought a return to Ottawa would reverse the fortunes of the Senators as they took on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night turned out to be depressingly wrong. The Sens played the same urgency-starved game that has earned them a 1-4-1 record since the Olympic break, and lost 4-1 as a result.
Although the Senators didn't deserve to win the game, there were some positives to take out of it. A few players, particularly Milan Michalek and Chris Kelly, had glorious chances to score, but just couldn't get the puck past Jonas Gustavsson. It's not as much that Gustavsson was stellar--he was pretty good, but certainly didn't steal the game--but the Senators' ongoing struggles to score just continue. Ottawa actually outshot the Leafs 31-30, but just couldn't capitalize on their chances.
Sens heroes: Chris Campoli, Nick Foligno
Oh, look, the two guys who've just returned from injury; apparently they haven't been affected by the losing their teammates have allowed to get them down. Campoli might have been the Senators best defenceman tonight, with a shot on net and a couple of hits. What he did more effectively than any of his teammates was contain the young, quick, and energetic Leafs players by forcing them to the outside and limiting their ability to get to the middle of the ice. His fellow defencemen would have benefited from following his lead (and I'm not sure I've ever said that about Campoli before).
Foligno, on the other side of the puck, also played a game that was tailored to the opposition: He drove to the net, forechecked hard, forced turnovers, and made life difficult for Gustavsson. He had three takeaways, one shot, and a couple of hits, but played the blue-collar style that made Ottawa so successful through January and February. Again, the rest of the team needs to follow his lead.
Sens zeros: Matt Carkner, Andy Sutton
The long-term costs of having a defenceman on whom you rely for over 15 minutes a game consistently drop the gloves for your team are really adding up, or at least it looks that way where Carkner's involved. He didn't fight against the Leafs, but he's slowing down as the season goes on, and seems to be losing his focus. The reason Carkner made the team this season, ahead of guys on one-way deals like Alex Picard and Chris Campoli, was because he played a simple game; he needs to get back to that, and soon, to be effective in the playoffs. As it is, he looks like he could be the odd man out when Filip Kuba returns.
I feel badly for putting Sutton on this list, given that he scored the Senators only goal, but he was off tonight. Similar to Carkner, he was a step behind, and (although I'll give him credit for trying it) was embarrassed when he missed a big hip-check on John Mitchell in the second and the Leafs centre roofed it past Brian Elliott.
Sens killers: Phil Kessel, Jonas Gustavsson
Kessel's become a regular on this list. He opened the scoring tonight, and now has six goals and an assist in five games against Ottawa since joining the Leafs. He had a game-high seven shots on net.
Gustavsson was solid, and there when the Leafs needed him. Toronto had eleven giveaways (which pales in comparison to Ottawa's 18 giveaways, but it still kind of bad), some of which put the team in a tough spot, but Gustavsson backed up his teammates.
Room for improvement: Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Kelly
These guys have different problems. Alfredsson can almost score at will when he's playing hard, but he hasn't had that je ne sais quoi in his game lately. I have a feeling it's got something to do with his play at the Olympics, and perhaps the disappointment with his team's finish, but he's got to get over it: The Senators aren't finished just yet. Alfredsson, though, can't be said to lack emotion, but his dirty hit-from-behind on Francois Beauchemin is the wrong avenue for him to vent it. (The fact that Beauchemin broke Alfie's ribs in the 2007 playoffs, reported by Ian Mendes, makes the hit more understandable, but still not excusable.) He's the captain, and this team will only go as far as he's going to take them
Kelly, on the other hand, is working his ass off, but can't score to save his life. He led all Senators with five shots on net, and probably had the Senators best scoring chance (goal notwithstanding) but couldn't convert. He finished -2, which isn't good for a defensive centre, but more importantly he's been given an opportunity to step up in the absence of some of the team's elite talent. With Mike Fisher out, Kelly moved up the lineup, but couldn't make the most of his chance.
Disappearing act: Matt Cullen, Ryan Shannon, Peter Regin
The three above-mentioned players? Combined for one shot on goal. Which was off the stick of Cullen, who also had an assist and wasn't completely missing. Still, the Senators were running at a good clip when he came in, and he was only supposed to add to the offence; he needs to put in the work to do that.
The most frustrating part of watching Shannon, and likely the reason he's had a hard time staying in the NHL, is his wrist-slitting inconsistency. Some games, he's Theo Fleury; others, he's just gone. On the bright side, he's not a liability, but unfortunately 'not a liability' is not good enough. He needs to be an asset more consistently.
It's easy to forget Regin is still a rookie based on his season so far, but he's got the gifts of a good playmaking centre and a knack for the net. When the going gets tough for the Senators, particularly in the playoffs, it's going to be players like Regin, Shannon, and Cullen who will need to provide the offence when the big guns are contained. They need to step it up to do so.
The shots are there. The finish is missing.