Making sense of Sens' ups and downs

ERIN NICKS

, Last Updated: 8:29 AM ET

The old sports adage says teams usually aren't as good as they appear to be when they're on a hot streak, and they're not as bad as they look when they're on a losing skid. That's certainly often true in today's NHL.

Teams that appear talented can crumble suddenly, and those that stumble out of the gate can rebound in a hurry.

The key is being able to ride out the highs and lows early in the season -- the Stanley Cup is not won in December, after all.

The Ottawa Senators have already experienced their share of ups and downs in this season of high expectations.

The Senators began the 2007-08 season with 16 wins and only three losses, a blistering pace that surprised many who predicted the team would suffer from a so-called "Stanley Cup hangover."

Obviously, no such hiccup occurred in the first quarter. Ottawa's success at the time was likely magnified because other teams expected to be contenders, particularly in the Eastern Conference, struggled around the .500 mark in the season's infancy. Buffalo went 5-5 through October, and Pittsburgh had a record of 6-4-1 in the same month.

Glancing at the nightly scores gave the impression that all was well with the Sens, but their game possessed flaws. Faceoffs were still an issue, and the power play would score in bunches -- firing on all cylinders one night, only to fizzle the following day.

As the season progressed, teams like the Penguins and Sabres experienced more difficulties. Pittsburgh went 2-7-1 through the majority of November, and Buffalo wasn't much better at 2-5-1.

Then both of those teams played the Senators.

Struggling franchises need a kickstart to end a skid, and the Penguins' and Sabres' timing could not have been better. Since their victories against Ottawa, Buffalo has won five out of eight games (as of Friday) and Pittsburgh has pulled off wins in five of its last six.

Given the talent on those two teams, it would have been foolish to expect them to struggle indefinitely, just as it was unreasonable to expect the Sens to continue the blistering pace they set to start the season.

And while no team wants to experience a slump, the Sens suffered theirs at a relatively good time.

The team had built up a big enough cushion during its hot start to hold on to first place in the conference even after going winless in seven games. That likely afforded the Sens some leeway with fans when things seemed bleak. It's a completely different story from last year, when the Sens found themselves circling the drain in the standings early in the season.

As for the franchises currently at the bottom of this season's standings, one glance at the point totals will shrug off many unpleasant perceptions.

Take, for example, the Atlanta Thrashers. On Friday, they were sitting in 12th place with 27 points. Is being four spots out of a playoff position grounds for overwhelming criticism? Not when there are only three points separating the Thrashers from the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were sitting in eighth place on the same day.

In fact, only 10 points separate the bottom eight teams in the East, and seven points hold apart the top half of the conference. When the standings are so tight with so much season left to play, making any predictions is a dicey proposition.

The first couple of months of the NHL season have taught us that even Stanley Cup favourites are bound to struggle at some point and struggling teams can turn it around quickly -- the key to being a legitimate contender, as it always has been, is to peak at the right time.

April is a long way off and parity abounds, so presume nothing and expect anything.


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