Sens' Hab-itual nightmare

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:37 AM ET

MONTREAL -- It was a night that started with the Senators looking up, hopefully, at a run for first place.

This morning, after a 7-5 loss at the hands of the Canadiens -- in which they trailed after two periods 7-1 last night at a giddy Bell Centre -- they are looking over their shoulders, a playoff spot now far from a sure thing.

A season that started with so much promise in October is now careening dangerously out of control in March.

On the heels of Saturday night's meltdown against the Maple Leafs, the Senators are now close to shifting into crisis mode heading into tonight's game vs. the Sabres in Buffalo.

They salvaged some pride last night by outscoring the Habs 4-0 in the third period to cut the lead to 7-5. But the Senators remain mired at 89 points and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, but just seven points ahead of the ninth-place Capitals.

"It's no time to panic. If we panic now, we might as well pack it in for the year and go home," said Senator Jason Spezza, who was credited with the last Ottawa goal. "There's a lot of people who are going to doubt us, but we have to believe in ourselves."

The questions about the Senators' goaltending, which looked like they had abated, will now rage again after the Habs chased Ottawa starter Martin Gerber from the net after 20 minutes. He gave up three goals on 14 shots and on each goal - two by Andrei Kostitsyn sandwiching one by Chris Higgins -- he lost track of the puck and looked lost himself.

"The last two games, the goaltending hasn't been good enough," said Senators coach and GM Bryan Murray, who will come back with Gerber against the Sabres tonight. "Five goals against the Leafs and seven (last night). That's not good enough. Part of it is goaltending, part of it has to do with turnovers in our own end and an inability to break out cleanly, which you have to do in this league."

The Senators' big line of Dany Heatley, Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, which had rung up 36 points as the Senators went 5-1 against the Habs this season, was on the ice for the first two goals.

Goaltender Ray Emery, playing for the first time in 11 games, came in and looked sharp in the early going, but had little chance as the Habs poured it on in the second period, scoring four times after Ottawa's Antoine Vermette had made it 3-1. Fourteen of the swirling Habs got on the scoresheet last night.

"We realize we haven't played that well in the last two games, but we have six games left and we have to play better in the next six to make the playoffs," said Heatley, who scored twice in the third period.

The Senators looked like a spent and spiritless club in the back half of that second period and the Canadiens fans -- sensing their club would soon have a seven-point lead with five games to go for their first division title since 1991-92 -- sent their club to the dressing room after 40 minutes with a standing ovation.

Less than two minutes after Vermette's goal, the kind of play that has typified the Senators slack defensive play lately allowed the Canadiens to snatch back whatever momentum the Senators had.

Former Senator Bryan Smolinski beat two Senators off the end boards and Montreal defenceman Francis Bouillon came in from the point, beating the check of Ottawa's Brian McGrattan. Bouillon had the open side to Emery's right at 11:29 to make it 4-1.

The Habs just heaped it on the Senators after that. Following a hooking penalty by Ottawa's Chris Phillips and a hold by Christoph Schubert, Montreal's Andrei Markov scored on the power play. Rookie Mikhail Grabovski scored on his stomach.

In the coup de grace, Montreal plumber Tom Kotsopoulos closed out the second by beating Emery -- who finally sunk to the level of his teammates' desultory play -- with a weak one with 45.1 seconds left in the period.

The Senators lost defenceman Wade Redden in the first period with a left leg injury after he went heavily into the boards seconds before Higgins' goal. He returned briefly in the second period before leaving for good.

So now the Senators limp into Buffalo for tonight's game with less than 24 hours to try and conjure up some kind of competitiveness and organization in their play. There was a hint of it in the third last night, but it was too little and much too late.

With games coming thick and fast now against teams looming behind them, it is a challenge they look ill-prepared, or willing, to meet.


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