TORONTO — One month in, the Senators' problem is obvious.
They don’t score as much as they give up.
Heading into Monday’s games, Ottawa was in 12th place in the Eastern Conference (albeit just two points out of eighth) with a 4-6-1 record that stems from a goal differential of minus-9. Only the New Jersey Devils (minus-19) and Anaheim Ducks (minus-13) were worse. And that’s with goaltending from Pascal Leclaire, then Brian Elliott, which has been better than most expected.
So, does coach Cory Clouston have enough weapons at his disposal?
He deferred that question to GM Bryan Murray on Monday.
“You’ll have to ask him,” said Clouston. “We still like our team, but we still have to work to create more offence. Until someone else comes walking through the door, this is the group we’re going to feel confident in and go forward with.”
Read into that what you will.
The Senators have been without at least one member of their top line — either Jason Spezza or Milan Michalek — for six of the 11 games. There were questions as to whether the third, Daniel Alfredsson, would be the latest injury casuality when he left Monday’s practice early, but Clouston said the captain “tweaked” a lower-body injury and should be fine for Tuesday’s game in Toronto against the Maple Leafs.
They’d better hope so. The 37-year-old Swede leads the team with 12 points, which means he’s been in on almost half of the team’s 26 goals to date.
Michalek, meanwhile, is going to miss at least the rest of this week, which also includes a pitstop at home for a game against the Islanders, then winds up Saturday at the Bell Centre in Montreal.
News from the trainer’s room gets better, however, as Leclaire will return from two weeks off with a groin injury to suit up as Brian Elliott’s back up at ACC. Defenceman Filip Kuba practised with the team Monday and left the ice early, but is expected to play Thursday or, more likely, Saturday.
The Senators could pull themselves over the .500 wall by then if they get their pop-gun attack going. For that, Spezza is counted on to shoulder a huge load, and there is only one more likely a place (Montreal) for him to get untracked than in his hometown of T.O.
Spezza has 11 goals and 47 points in 42 career games against the Leafs, making them his second favourite punching bag to the Habs, against whom he has scored 24 goals and 51 points in 41 games.
Spezza says he thrives on inter-division games because of their intensity.
“Whenever there’s a lot of emotion in the game, I find it fun,” he said.
He also found practice pretty fun Monday, his first full on-ice workout since getting the green light to return from a groin injury. Presuming Alfredsson will play, Spezza is expected to centre a line with Alex Kovalev and Peter Regin for a second straight game.
“It was nice to get a chance to play with Kovie and Petey in practice,” said Spezza, who admitted to being “sharper” Monday. “We talked a little bit on the ice, figured out some tendencies we want to do. Last game was still a little bit of jitters, and getting back into it. Now I’m feeling that comfortable on the blades, after being off a bit. I anticipate us having a better game (Tuesday).”
Spezza will set up in the high slot of one power play formation that also has Sergei Gonchar flipping to the left point and becoming more of shot threat, as well as give Alfredsson some added breathing room.
“I’ve got to get myself open and get in a good shooting positon,” said Spezza. “Last game I got myself open, but kind of put my body in a position where it was tough for me to shoot. For me, it’s not a role I’m used to, being the shooter in the middle, so I’ve got to position myself so that when I do get the puck, I’m in a position to shoot. They’re subtle changes that probably don’t get noticed, but are a big deal for me.”
Meanwhile, Spezza has no doubt the Senators will again starting hitting the mark more as a team.
“I think it’s too early to start talking that we don’t have enough offence,” he said. “We definitely do need to get it going, but offence is kind of a confidence and chemistry thing. I think it’s going to slowly start coming. Once we get rolling, I think we’ll be a real good offensive club.”
It doesn’t matter who they’re playing or where - the Senators need to get rolling immediately.
“It’s another big game,” said Chris Phillips. “They all are. Obviously we’d like to be higher up in the standings than we are at this point of the season, We’re trying to turn things around. But it doesn’t matter who you’re playing or what time of year, there’s no easy games. We just have to really focus on ourselves at this point. Not think about who we’re playing, or different matchups and all that kind of stuff. Focus on ourselves, get ourseleves going on the right page here.”