Freewheeling ride over for big line

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:08 AM ET

NEW YORK -- It's the question on the minds of Senators fans now ...

No, not what odds a certain NHL associate coach might be giving on the Senators winning the Stanley Cup.

It's: "What's wrong with the big line?"

Senators coach Bryan Murray has a pretty good idea.

So does winger Dany Heatley.

Heatley and linemates Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, the darlings of the early part of the NHL season, are finding goals harder to come by these days.

Heatley's not surprised.

The big line has just four goals in the last five games and three of those came in the 7-2 win over the last-place Pittsburgh Penguins last week.

BLANKED TWICE

They were blanked by the Sabres on Saturday and in the Penguins' return visit to Scotiabank Place on Monday.

The line is also a combined minus-4 in those five games and found themselves on the bench for the start of a couple of power plays Monday night.

"We know how it's going to be," Heatley said yesterday as the Senators prepared for tonight's meeting with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

"The season is never the same all the way. Games get tougher, defence gets tougher. That's the process of the season. It just gets tougher.

"We know how it's going to be after the Olympic break and in the playoffs."

Murray spoke to Alfredsson at yesterday's practice about the way the top line has been playing and said he planned to speak to Heatley and Spezza before tonight's game.

"Why were the third and fourth lines successful (against Pittsburgh)?" Murray said he asked Alfredsson. "They just worked real hard, they skated and competed for loose pucks. The top line has not been doing that. They've been overhandling the puck and that's resulted in turnovers."

As the season progresses, teams have been changing the way they play defence, particularly against Ottawa's top line, but also in general.

The freewheeling play common in the first couple of months of the season has diminished as teams have been keeping one and sometimes two forwards back and creating a picket fence across their blue line. It's like the trap has been moved back from the area of the red line.

When the puck is in their zone, coaches are collapsing their players down to the net.

"The season has different stages," said Murray. "There's training camp, the first part, the second part and the playoffs. In every stage, different things are required. You have to make adjustments as things change."

FOES CHANGE TACTICS

That means the easy entries the top line enjoyed earlier this year must be replaced by chip-ins and a willingness to battle to retrieve pucks, otherwise, pucks get turned over.

"There used to be teams that always played defensively against us like Minnesota and New Jersey, but now we're seeing a lot of teams doing the same thing against us," said Heatley. "We've got to stop being so stubborn and not force plays. We've got to chip it in and go get it again."

The Senators would benefit tonight from having the big line get going again without losing the support they got Monday from the third and fourth lines.

The makeshift fourth line of defenceman Christoph Schubert, callup Steve Martins and Antoine Vermette was the Senators' best line in the first period, scoring Ottawa's only goal and tying the game 1-1 after 20 minutes.

The line of Peter Schaefer, Bryan Smolinski and Chris Neil had three goals, two of them on the power play in the second period to put the Senators in control.


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