Sens have chance to label themselves

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 12:39 PM ET

 They were embarrassingly, confoundingly and inexplicably bad.

 They stunk.

  They were ripped for being a bunch of passionless frauds after being shut out in a game in which they could have taken control of the series.

 Sound familiar?

 The noise around the Senators the last couple of days is stunningly similar to that which consumed them last year in the playoffs.

 Are they chokers?

 Do they care enough?

 Is this group doomed to be remembered as a bunch of underachieving losers? (Maybe that's not exactly the way he put it, but that was the message Senators GM John Muckler delivered yesterday. It's about time somebody got some attitude.)

 The Senators' character is being questioned, again, their heart being put under the microscope, again, heading into tonight's potential elimination game against the Maple Leafs at the Corel Centre.

 BLEW GAME VS. PHILLY

 Last year, with a chance to take a 3-1 lead in their Eastern Conference semi-final against the Flyers, the Senators stunk in Game 4 -- they were shut out in that one, too -- stained with a lack of commitment and passion. It was very similar to the criticism they have heard the last couple of days after the appalling effort they put on the ice against the Maple Leafs on Friday night in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference quarter-final.

 After that game against the Flyers last spring, people within the organization wondered how a team -- not just one or two or three players, but a whole team -- could give so little in a game that meant so much.

 After giving up a goal 21 seconds into Game 5 to the Flyers, the Senators rebounded with the next five goals and then polished the Flyers off in Game 6.

 If you're a Senators fan looking for something positive heading into Game 6 against the Leafs tonight --and I know it's not much -- it's that the Senators have followed up their worst effort with one of their best in the past.

 Except now the Senators have left themselves with no room for error.

 Their lifeless performance Friday night left coach Jacques Martin, again, with little in the way of explanation other than it was "just one of those games."

 In the playoffs, you are down to the best 16 teams in the league and it is evident to anybody that was paying attention that there's not that big a difference between the first and eighth seeds.

 One thing that is different is emotion, passion, desire, whatever you want to call it.

 Last spring, after the Flyers rallied to tie their Eastern Conference semi-final series with the Senators 2-2, Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock said the game gets boiled down to its barest emotional elements at this time of year.

 "You can throw out all the X's and O's in the playoffs," he said. "It's as a group how badly do you want to keep playing? How badly do you want to keep together?"

 It is both the curse and the beauty of this time of year that you are characterized by the outcome of the last game. The characterizations can only have a shelf life of a couple of days (all you have to do is read the papers in both cities.)

 FATAL CHARACTER FLAW

 Right now, the Senators are once again a wonderfully talented team with some kind of fatal character flaw, lacking the passion it takes to win against a less-talented opponent.

 Now it's up to them to decide if that's the stigma with which they want to be branded.

 The difference now?

 If they lose tonight, there is no game in a couple of days to alter perception.

 Their latest reputation will be well-earned and enduring.


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