More than a game on the line for Senators

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 12:38 PM ET

 The Senators have been labeled "choking dogs" in the playoffs by the national media.

 Tonight, we will find out if they deserve that label.

  It's one thing to lose a playoff series, but it's a whole other story if you give it away. That's what the Senators are on the verge of doing against the Maple Leafs -- and that would be a bitter pill to swallow for anyone in Ottawa.

 The Senators must dig down deep in Game 6 tonight at the Corel Centre to avoid another early playoff exit at the hands of the Leafs. If they don't succeed, there won't be enough space in this newspaper to deal with all the complaints.

 A loss to the Leafs will prompt the usual criticism that the Senators lack the heart, guts, determination, will, desire or moxie to beat their arch-rivals.

 And the criticism will be valid.

 "We've got to play better as a team," Senators defenceman Curtis Leschyshyn said yesterday. "Everybody has an opinion and everybody can say what they want to say about us, but we know that we can beat Toronto in this series.

 "We know we can get this done, but we need to have everybody going if we're going to make this happen. We have to have a better work ethic and we have to play our best game of the series. We know we can get this done."

 SAD EFFORT

 The reality is the Senators are beating themselves. Their effort in Game 5 was sad and inexplicable. Many agree it was worse than the club's performance in a Game 7 loss to Toronto in 2002.

 You have to wonder what's happening here? Are the players so tired of coach Jacques Martin that they've decided to tune him out at the most important time of the year just so they can get someone else behind the bench?

 Would some players rather play at the world championship in Prague next week when they've got a chance to carry a Stanley Cup down Bank St. in June?

 Who knows what has gone wrong?

 But if the Senators lose tonight, then some people are going to lose their jobs. Owner Eugene Melnyk pledged to keep this team together after the Senators made it to the Eastern Conference final last year before losing to the eventual champion New Jersey Devils.

 Melnyk didn't give president Roy Mlakar and GM John Muckler a blank cheque, but he did put his money where his mouth was by increasing the payroll by more than $10 million US before the start of the season.

 Essentially, the only player gone from last year's lineup is winger Magnus Arvedson, but he hasn't been missed.

 Melnyk allowed Muckler to spend the money to acquire Peter Bondra (Washington) and Greg de Vries (Rangers) late this season. Neither player has made the expected impact.

 It would be easy to point the finger at Mlakar, Muckler and Martin if the Senators go down in flames, but the players should carry much of the blame because they haven't performed to their potential.

 Yesterday, Muckler wouldn't talk about the possibility of jobs being on the line tonight.

 "We're trying to win a Stanley Cup here. I can't discuss that right now," he said.

 TOUGH CHALLENGE

 The players know they still have time to save themselves, but they face a mountainous task -- they must win tonight and then again in Game 7 on Tuesday in Toronto to advance to the second round.

 "We know, as a team, what we're capable of doing," said centre Mike Fisher. "It's a matter of going out there and being more hungry. What we have to do is make sure we come out and play our best game.

 "We have to put that (Game 5) behind us. We have to forget about it and move on. We're a better team when we play to the best of our abilities. We still have confidence that we can get the job done."

 A season hangs in the balance at the Corel Centre and so does the future for a lot of Senators.


Videos

Photos