Sens' last shot at redemption

DON BRENNAN -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 12:35 PM ET

 Savour this particular Sunday drive to the big arena out in the country, ladies and gentlemen.

 It could very well be the last NHL game here for a long time, pending efforts made at ice level this evening (and Tuesday, if somehow necessary) as well as the CBA negotiating table over the summer.

  So dress for the occasion. Perhaps you might want to put on your Sunday best as you wonder if the Senators will decide to bring theirs. You'd have to think they'll give a little more of themselves than they did last time out, anyway. They couldn't possibly give less.

 Remember the days of worry about hockey fans showing up at the Corel Centre in Maple Leafs jerseys? After their latest performance, the Senators should be concerned their supporters will arrive tonight with paper bags covering their faces.

 People are once again pointing and laughing at Ottawa's NHL team, this time because of its play in Game 5 of this Battle of Ontario.

 They're ridiculing and criticizing the Senators for being world-class underachievers. They're dusting off references like "choking dogs." They're calling them all the old and familiar nasty names, like weak-hearted and passive. They're saying they lack emotion and grit, just like they said before the blip on the screen that was last year's post-season run to the Eastern Conference final.

 People are even suggesting that despite all the talent, the Senators will never win, at least not the way they are currently laid out. That they'll never beat the Maple Leafs. This coach and these players can't adapt. They can't rise to the occasion. They can't get it right.

 Yes, they were taking all sorts of shots at the Senators yesterday -- and we're just talking about the people who write for the Toronto newspapers. The people who have no financial or emotional investment in this team, but are paid for their most accurate observations. The people who represent the opinion of the hockey world.

 But what about the people who should matter most to the team?

 The fans who gathered at Local Heroes or Don Cherry's or Marshy's to watch the Senators carry momentum from an inspiring 4-1 victory in Game 4?

 Or the folks who looked for the same from their living rooms or attended house parties thrown in anticipation of the tide turning, finally?

 From the corporate sponsors to the families that can't afford to go to games but live and die with their home town NHLers nonetheless, and everyone in between?

 A CRYING SHAME

 What were they all saying as they watched the Senators produce the most disgusting big-game performance in a franchise history that includes a 3-0 belly flop against the Leafs on May 14, 2002, the seventh game of the conference semi-final in which they produced just 19 shots?

 They had to be cursing or crying. Or both.

 To those fans, the Senators owe an apology. Not with words, but actions. And they need to not let it happen again.

 Every one of the Senators should be thoroughly embarrassed by the way their team played at the ACC on Friday, against the Leafs minus Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan, their best centre and best winger.

 In boxing terminology, the Senators spent most of the evening protecting themselves against an opponent that had no serious punch. Now they are on the verge of being knocked out of the tournament themselves.

 To survive, they must alter trends. They must show heart they've never shown before in this type of situation. They are 2-7 in games they've played when facing elimination -- with those two wins coming after they had fallen well behind the New Jersey Devils last spring -- but never before have they pushed off the wall to come back and win a series.

 There exists a sense they can still do it this time because they have outplayed the Leafs in four of the five games. But now they have to win, not just "outchance" the Leafs, and that is a task they have difficulty with at the best of times. They are 7-15 against Toronto in the playoffs, and they've lost eight of 12 post-season games against the Leafs at the Corel Centre.

 But they can do it, they can repay owner Eugene Melnyk for his commitment, they can keep alive predictions made at the season-opening Eagles concert.

 They can still go on to win it all, especially since the road doesn't look as bumpy on the other side of Toronto.

 But they can't think that far ahead now. On this particular sabbath, they have to atone for their sins of two nights ago. They have to win the fans' forgiveness by delivering a full and true effort, and a victory.

 Then they have to carry it one step further by bagging the Leafs on Tuesday, which to many here would be just as good as winning the Stanley Cup.


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