Before this past weekend, the Ottawa Senators had not lost more than two consecutive regulation decisions in 2013. On the other side of the weekend, they have suddenly dropped four in a row, with the latest two falters coming against surefire playoff no-shows in Buffalo and Florida.
Granted, Florida Panthers netminder Scott Clemmensen stood out with 40 saves Sunday night, effectively preventing his team from worsening its posture as the flimsiest defense in the Eastern Conference. But if one is to pronounce Ottawa’s 2-1 drawback just “one of those nights,” then one of those nights could not have come at a worse time.
Not only are the Sens riding a four-game pointless skid in the standings, but each of their top three scorers has been kept pointless even longer.
Productive veteran blueliner Sergei Gonchar has gone arid in his last six outings while scoring co-leader Kyle Turris has been stuck on an identical 22 points for the last five. Ageless captain Daniel Alfredsson, third on the team with 20 points in 2013, has been scoreless for the past six games.
Could it be that Alfredsson is naturally on the decline? Or is it just a case of the adversity from the protracted absences of Milan Michalek (knee) and Jason Spezza (back) catching up with him in the homestretch?
In recent years, Alfredsson has been linked off and on with Michalek and Spezza. The three arguably spelled the difference in Ottawa’s 2012 playoff qualification when they easily constituted three of the team’s top four producers, combining to score 96 of the team’s 243 goals.
This year, though, Spezza has been out since Jan. 27, while Michalek has been sidelined since March 8.
In the absence of one, Alfredsson had a five-game production drought spanning February through March 3. In the absence of both, he mustered a 3-4-7 scoring log in seven outings between March 11 and March 23 but has been held scoreless since then.
The untimely nadir of Gonchar’s season has coincided with Alfredsson’s, and its effect on the Senators may be the exploitation of another key injury.
Gonchar has stepped up as a point-based playmaker since Erik Karlsson went down on Feb. 13 with a season-ending Achilles ailment. En route to the 2012 Norris Trophy, Karlsson had led the team with 59 assists and placed second with 78 points, behind Spezza and just ahead of Michalek and Alfredsson.
Prior to his injury, Karlsson had a 6-4-10 scoring log in 14 games. After Karlsson went on the IR, Gonchar brooked a long bout of frostbite with zero points in his next eight games between Feb. 16 and March 2.
Gonchar immediately thawed out—and then some—with a 10-game scoring streak, accruing 15 points, including 14 assists, in that span. But now he has relapsed to utter barrenness, cultivating nothing in his last six ventures.
More critically, it is starting to cost the Senators for the first time all season.
Ottawa’s current skid began with a 4-0 home shutout at the hands of the provincial rival Toronto Maple Leafs. A healthy Karlsson, Michalek and/or Spezza might not have been able to do much about that, but they could have stopped the bleeding before it even started on the road.
Through the first week of April, the Sens have dropped a 3-2 decision in Boston, a 4-2 upshot in Buffalo and, most recently, Sunday’s bout in Florida. That lone multi-goal slip was decided when the Sabres scored twice in a span of 12 seconds late in the third period.
It doesn’t get much easier in the immediate future. Immediately on tap, there are still another four consecutive games away from Scotiabank Place, where the Senators are a delectable 13-3-3 in contrast to their 6-10-3 road record.
At least that will be followed by a merciful two-day hiatus before the finale of their regular-season road itinerary in Boston. Ottawa will subsequently play five of its final six regular-season games at home, including four in a row.
The homestand should help, provided there is a roster raring and able to pounce and keep up the dominance at Scotiabank Place. The question, though, is what exactly will the implications be?
Up to this point, the Senators’ valiance has been enough to keep them in a footrace for fifth place in the East with the Maple Leafs. Even with their recent slump, they are still lodged in sixth place and trail Toronto by merely two points.
The trouble is that they only lead the stealthy New York Rangers and New York Islanders by the same margin. The Rangers retooled admirably at the trading deadline, and both New York teams are off to a 3-0-1 start in April.
With a four-point edge over the Devils, the top non-playoff team as of Monday morning, the Senators can at least put a python’s squeeze on their postseason endeavor with a head-to-head win at New Jersey Friday.
But due to circumstances beyond their control, they may be forced to settle for eighth place and an unenviable first-round date with the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistical information for this report was found via nhl.com