Don't hit panic button

DON BRENNAN -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:45 AM ET

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Senators 4, Islanders 2

Yes, Virginia, the Senators really are human.

For awhile there, you probably thought they were more machine than men, the way they steamrolled through the first nine weeks of the season winning 19-of-22 games.

But a long-term injury to Martin Havlat, a couple of nagging problems that have knocked Jason Spezza out of the lineup and a dab of modern-day reality have silenced the dreamers who were starting to wonder if Ottawa could join the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens as the only teams to post a single digit under the "Loss" column since the NHL was expanded to 60 games in the 1940s.

Heading into last night's tilt with the Islanders, the Sennies had won just four of their previous 10 games and coach Bryan Murray was hearing word the faithful fans back home were slipping into panic mode.

"What, we're not supposed to lose (a game or two)?" Murray asked upon learning the post-game call-in shows were being taken over by worrywarts.

Not this year, he was told.

"No?" said Murray, who loves coaching in Ottawa largely because the people care about their team so much.

"I guess that's the way it is, but there are cycles in the league, over 82 games. I was talking to my brother (Terry, an assistant coach with the Flyers) before the game (Thursday), they couldn't win a game there for awhile. It had to do with (Simon) Gagne being out. Now he's back. (The absence of) one good player, two good players makes a huge difference on every team.

"They get 20 or more minutes of ice time, they are the producers, really. But that's the way it is, and we know that."

Meanwhile, Murray insists the hard times his team has fallen on now is the best thing that could happen to it.

"These are games you have to go through, you have to go through these tough experiences, or you're no good at the end of the year at all," he said. "If we were coasting along like we were there for a little bit, and you guys were patting them on the back so hard ... if they don't go through this other part, when they face it for the first time it becomes a difficult thing.

"I'm upset when we don't win, but when I sit up in my room and make notes, I'm saying, 'Okay now they'll be receptive of this idea.'

"I think these are the things that will make us better in the long run, and that's what we're obviously hoping to do here."

Put that way, fans would probably be agreeable to trading wins now for more of them in the spring.

But then, you've also got to think the Senators would be better off losing a few to the Maple Leafs --against whom they are 4-0 thus far this season -- before the two teams' annual playoff meeting.

Starts and Stops:

The next couple of days will be especially hard on Chris Neil, whose mother died tragically in a car accident last month. "I'm going to head home (to Flesherton) and see my dad and brothers, but it's going to be tough. It was my mom's favourite time of year," Neil said yesterday. "Just spending time with the family is going to be good. Dad will have lots of people around. My nieces and nephews will be there and that will help to take your mind off stuff." ... The rowdies at Nassau Veterans Memorial Colisieum were respectfully quiet for the singing of O Canada last night, but there were catcalls aplenty during the Star Spangled Banner. Why? Because Ray Emery was unintentionally facing away from the American flag, which fluttered on the bottom of the scoreboard screen. Emery was booed every time he touched the puck, and that was often in the early going, and he probably had no idea why.

Punch Lines:

In Thursday's loss to the Flyers, Brian McGrattan didn't see another second of ice time after that first-period shift which he spent mostly chasing Donald Brashear around, then watching from within spitting distance as R.J. Umberger gave Philadelphia a 3-0 lead. "Brian was playing well, and now he was so interested in (fighting) Brashear that it's hard to get the focus back," Murray said yesterday. "Just play. You don't have to fight everybody. You don't have to be anything other than a player right now, and if you get challenged, then accept the challenge. That's not fair to him, either, because we've asked him to do that role. But we've got to get more people just playing." ... Didn't take long for McGrattan to get back on the ice and into the swing of things again last night, as he dropped the gloves with Isles tough guy Eric Godard in the fifth minute. While McGrattan threw the staggering blow, if he won the bout it was only by a slim margin. Yet, he still celebrated with his trademark jig on his way to the box, something he normally only does at home games. Part of it was probably because that was his first fighting major in 10 games, and even that one was against an unwilling Sean Avery.

Between Periods:

Fans here were calling for Snow last night. That is, they chanted Garth Snow's name in unison after starting goalie Rick DiPietro allowed his second soft goal of the game ... Anton "A-Train" Volchenkov was offically named to Team Russia yesterday. "I'm in," he told reporters with a smile after the Senators' pre-game meal. A quick glimpse of the others who are "in" will tell you Russia is loaded and could very conceivably win it all.

Things That Make You Go Hmmm...:

If Panthers GM Mike Keenan was Santa, the best thing the Senators could get for Christmas would be Olli Jokinen. Such a big, strong, offensively gifted centre would greatly improve the Stanley Cup chances of a team that is going to need to do something before the trade deadline ... Their jerseys aren't getting easier to look at, but the Islanders still have the nicest ice girls in the NHL.

SOME THINGS WORTH NOTING...

A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS: After work commitments kept him in Washington, Detroit, Florida and Anaheim for oh, 25 years or so, Bryan Murray will enjoy his second consecutive Christmas at home in Shawville. Today is the big day for the Murray clan, which includes about 60 people or so. "Christmas Eve we have the family get together," he said. "We have sleigh rides for the kids, the girls go to church ... some people just sit around and watch hockey or football or whatever is on, and we exchange gifts. We'll go home after that and have our own individual family thing."

HOLIDAY JEERS: A few boos were heard from the crowd when Alexei Yashin appeared on the screen delivering a taped Merry Christmas message during a second-period stop in play. The cheers were loud when Jason Blake did the same.

don.brennan@ott.sunpub.com


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