PHILADELPHIA -- As inconsistent as the Senators have acted the past three months, their owner is keeping the faith.
"We know we have the best talent in the league," Eugene Melnyk said in the Wachovia Center press box moments before the opening faceoff of last night's Ottawa-Philadelphia tilt. "If we're firing on all cylinders I truly believe no team can beat us in this league.
"We showed it at the beginning of the year, we showed it going into the Stanley Cup finals last year. It's just a lot of little pieces have to come together and I think we have a championship team. And I stick by that."
Kinda makes you wonder about the reception on the TVs at Bert's Bar in the Barbados, doesn't it? Up close, the Senators haven't looked like anything resembling a championship team since Remembrance Day. Hence the firing of coach John Paddock on Wednesday.
"I think with this team, at this time, it was something that had to be done," said Melnyk. "We're 18 games away from the playoffs ... if there was ever a time to crank it up, this is the time to crank it up. If it doesn't get done now, it isn't going to get done.
"The great thing about this is we've got time on our side. God forbid if this happened with three games to go and all of a sudden you have to make a change like this. Here we have some time. Not a lot, but we have some time."
Melnyk's belief in the players is shared by Bryan Murray, the GM/old-new coach.
"I think this is as good a team or better than last year, I really do." Murray said after donning the blades for the first time since last June at yesterday's morning skate. "We've got some grit now, we've got some guys who are bigger and stronger, we just have to find a way to get it out of them. I just think in a couple of games here, a couple of practices, they'll feel a lot better about themselves."
Just in case both men are wrong, Murray's job is safe.
"I assured him, win lose or draw, and you can take this to the bank, that he is going to be with this organization next year," said Melnyk. "This is not a situation where he's stepping in, and if we don't go deep into the playoffs, there's going to be a dismissal. He's coming in to do a job. He doesn't have to do it, but he's going to do it. He's stepping up to the plate and I'm proud of him for it."
STARTS AND STOPS
Both Murray and Chris Kelly yesterday used the word "close" in describing renewed contract talks aimed at keeping the all-purpose (okay, maybe not so much power play) forward in Senators colours. Needing to be determined yet is the length of the deal, as it sounds like the sides are in the same financial ballpark. This comes after trade deadline reports that had Murray shopping the UFA-eligible Kelly to all 30 teams, with no takers. Yesterday, Murray said that wasn't exactly the case. He said out of concern he'd lose Kelly on July 1 and get nothing in return, he did talk to a few NHL clubs and there was interest in the player, but "at the end of the day I wasn't going to trade him." Meanwhile, Kelly was aware of the original reports that suggested he was available for the taking. "I saw it on TV," he said. "It's part of the business obviously, it's not a fun side, but nevertheless it happened. I'm still here and I'm happy about that." Asked if his teammates gave him the gears over the TV report, Kelly said: "It's funny, because you give the guys a hard time that you know aren't going to get traded and as soon as your name comes up the guys lay off you. You know you've got something to worry about when no one's giving you a hard time."
Talk about chills. Fighting the flu, I just watched Lauren Hart share the signing of God Bless America with the late-great Kate Smith, who did her part via and old video. It was the first time the Flyers resorted to such a pre-game performance this season ... On his first shift as a Senator, a pass went off Martin Lapointe's skate to R.J. Umberger, who then turned around a rattled a shot off the crossbar ... The goaltending, conditioning and video guys aside, the Senators are now the only team in the NHL with just one full-fledged assistant coach. That, of course, is Greg Carvel. "When I started coaching in this league I didn't have an assistant," said Murray. "And we got to the point where we had four or five guys on the ice. Really, the head coach should dictate pretty much everything. I just felt I wanted to be the guy here, and I'll take the responsibility. I'm not afraid of that." Murray said Randy Lee will do "some more eye in the sky work" from the press box, while goalie coach Eli Wilson will get more responsibility in helping him make decisions on who starts between the pipes .... You would think Martin Gerber wasn't so sad to see John Paddock fired, given that the former coach was leaning toward Ray Emery as his main man the rest of the way. But if Gerber felt any joy, he did a good job of hiding it. "I think it's really bad it had to go that far," he said yesterday. "It's the last thing you want to happen to anybody." He may have anyway, but Murray started Emery last night because Paddock had already told the goalie he was playing. Murray plans on talking to the two 'tenders in the next day or so before revealing his plan. "I think so," Gerber said when asked if he felt the slate was now clean. "Flip the page and start a new thing, see what happens."