Sens wringing in New Year

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:53 AM ET

The Senators hit the halfway pole of their season tomorrow night when they host Wayne Gretzky and his Phoenix Coyotes.

The way things are going lately, they will likely hit that pole head on and hurt a shoulder, chest or ribs.

Other than the fact they have 117 points in sick bay, the power play is 0-for-January, they've surrendered first place in the league and they've won only once in four games (against non-playoff teams), things are good, thanks for asking.

The reason why the Senators are skidding as they hit the halfway mark is the frequent red lights of the early season have given way to a black and blue cloud.

19-3 START

After racing out to a 19-3 record in their first 22 games, the banged-up Senators are 9-6-3 in their last 18 as they head into Game 41, certainly nothing near a disaster and understandable given they have been without three of their top four forwards for varying stretches and will remain without a couple of them for the foreseeable future.

The loss of Martin Havlat (shoulder), Jason Spezza (chest muscle) and captain Daniel Alfredsson (cracked rib) means the Senators have 117 points out of their lineup.

Spezza, meanwhile, is cautiously optimistic he might be able to play tomorrow night.

Since Alfredsson (return uncertain) was hit by a Zdeno Chara slap shot, the Senators have scored just nine goals in four games, winning just once.

The power play is 0-for-24 in the last four games. The penalty killers, in that same stretch, have surrendered six goals on 26 chances.

"You've got to win on special teams," said Senators centre Bryan Smolinski. "We know that. The little plays are killing us. We're losing faceoffs, the power play is not getting goals, we're making a first mistake and that's being compounded by second and third mistakes.

"We've got to eliminate those second and third mistakes."

"Loose pucks," said defenceman Wade Redden. "Loose pucks tell the tale. Who's battling to get those loose pucks? We just have to be a little more hungry. That's the biggest thing."

It's a blip the Senators will hopefully overcome when they get healthy again.

The goals which came so easily in the early part of the season (and had one national newspaper ridiculously wondering "Are the Sens the best ever?") are now hard to come by with so much skill out of the lineup.

CAUTIOUS APPROACH

In the meantime, coach Bryan Murray and his staff have had to emphasize a more cautious, defensive approach lately with varying degrees of success. Giving up a 4-on-1 on the second shift of what turned out to be a 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday means somebody isn't listening.

The Senators are still the only team in the league to have given up fewer than 100 goals this season. Much of their defensive success this season is thanks to GM John Muckler's philosophy that having the puck 180 feet away from your net most of the time is a pretty good way of cutting down opposition scoring chances. The Senators had the puck so much in the early part of the season, they didn't let the other guys get much in the way of chances.

TOPS IN OFFENCE, DEFENCE

They still lead the league in offence and defence, goaltender Dominik Hasek looks like his old self, they might have the deepest blue line in the league and, when healthy, can put their forwards up against anybody's.

The recent challenges should have a benefit in the second half as well, as there have been nights when the Senators have played with six rookies (Andrej Meszaros, Christoph Schubert, Chris Kelly, Patrick Eaves, Brian McGrattan and Ray Emery). They've earned some experience lately which should help later.

Despite having their status downgraded recently from "best ever" to "pretty good most nights, " the Senators' first half of the season has been an outstanding success.

A win tomorrow night against The Great One and his respectable Coyotes outfit will give the Senators 29 wins in their first 41 games and add to their already franchise-best start.

The most wins they've had previously through 41 games was 25 in 2002-03.

Add it all up and the big picture is a rosy one, even if a couple of recent snapshots have not been too pretty.


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