FIRST, to those grasping at positives, something slim and rather shaky to hang a hat on:
Your Senators get to play a Pennsylvania-based team again tonight.
And now the biting realities:
A) They are hosting the most proficient road warriors in their conference before hitting the road for an Olympic break that couldn't come soon enough and
B) the Philadelphia Flyers, even without injured star Peter Forsberg, are oh, so not the Pittsburgh Penguins.
John Muckler returned from the GM meetings in Las Vegas yesterday to find his softening Sens have emerged victorious from only two of their last seven games -- and both wins had been against the 30th-place Penguins. Naturally, he's concerned and considering what he can do to fix the problems.
"We haven't been sitting back not trying to make a deal," said Muckler, who will meet with the team's pro scouts in Naples, Fla., for four days next week. "We've done a lot of homework and we're going to try and do the right thing for the hockey club. Are we going to be able to do it? I don't know at this point.
"We'll know in the next four or five days which direction we're going," added Muckler, who adamantly opposes making a move that damages the team's future. "We'll know whether we're going to make a trade or not."
Turning decisions into actions won't be done until at least Feb. 28 -- after the Olympic break roster freeze -- and before the March 9 deadline. Muckler expects a lot of movement once teams either recognize they can't remain in the hunt for a playoff spot or that they can't re-sign their soon-to-be unrestricted free agents.
"Everybody in this room wants to win," he said of the Senators. "There's not one guy who's not trying.
"This is a great bunch of guys."
It is also a team in need of a jolt.
The Senators have just nine Ws to show for the 19 games they've played since Jan. 2, and only 17 victories in 33 games since Martin Havlat was lost to a shoulder injury.
Once a Stanley Cup favourite, the Senators would be fighting to make the playoffs if it wasn't for a 19-3 start that now seems like a mirage.
An impressive 33-0 when they pot four or more goals and an alarming 3-19 when they don't, the Senators are currently having issues with stretching the twine. They have only scored twice in their last two games and eight goals in their last four. They also haven't popped in four goals against anybody other than the Penguins in eight games, and have done so only seven times since Dec. 30.
SHIFTS TOO LONG
Slumping at the same time are Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson, neither of whom have scored in the past four games. Also currently flat-lining is Jason Spezza, who hasn't had a point in the past four games or a goal in his last nine, and is also making glaring defensive mistakes.
The struggles of the big line -- and what happens to the team when its guns are firing blanks -- might and should cause Muckler to think of dealing for a bona-fide star.
"I told them that their shifts are too long," coach Bryan Murray said when asked about a conversation he had with Spezza and Heatley near the end of yesterday's practice. "When you're out there for 40-45 seconds, you can be fairly effective. When (a shift) goes beyond that, you get to the point you're making mistakes. That's happening."
Murray toyed with different combinations yesterday but would not commit to staying with them tonight, when the Forsberg-less Flyers bring their 17-7-3 road record to The Bank.
The most noticeable change to the lines included centre Chris Kelly's slide to the left wing, on a line with Spezza and Alfredsson. Mike Fisher was reunited with wingers Peter Schaefer and Chris Neil while Bryan Smolinski centered Heatley and Patrick Eaves and Antoine Vermette worked between Brian McGrattan and Christoph Schubert. Vaclav Varada (upper body) missed practice and is questionable for tonight, as is Chris Phillips (sprained thumb), who did skate.