- Chris Stevenson
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OTTAWA -- The Ottawa Senators, the consensus pick by many experts (people who are paid to guess) to win the Stanley Cup, have had trouble meeting those expectations.
Now, instead of meeting expectations, they just meet.
With the Senators -- the defending President's Trophy champions -- currently sitting out of the playoffs and having won just four of their last 15 games, there have been a flurry of meetings to try and nail down just what it is that's gone wrong.
There are no easy answers as to how such a talented team can suddenly be one of the great enigmas of this NHL season.
The most significant meeting of the minds took place after Saturday night's 2-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs when rookie Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, president Roy Mlakar, general manager John Muckler and coach Jacques Martin -- the four wise M's -- met for about 40 minutes. Nobody was particularly forthcoming about what was discussed, but there was no doubt plenty of discussion about where they go from here.
There are no indications Martin's job is in jeopardy, but in a meeting with the owner, the president and the general manager, you know it's the coach who is going to have to do most of the talking.
"Eugene is a positive person who doesn't get the opportunity very often to talk to the three of us," Mlakar told the Ottawa Sun on Sunday. "He's a very encouraging type of person, who, despite his heritage, like everybody in Ottawa shares the hatred of the Leafs."
And of losing, no doubt.
The arrival of the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday night at the Corel Centre points out just how quickly things have changed for the Senators. Ottawa has
eliminated the Flyers the last two years in the playoffs. But now it is the Flyers who come to town in first place overall in the NHL and riding a 12-game
unbeaten streak, their longest in about five years.
The meetings continued Sunday as Martin canceled a scheduled day off and called the players to a gabfest at the Corel Centre. It is no doubt reassuring to suffering Senators fans -- they hate losing to the Leafs as much as Red Sox fans enjoy a thumping from the Yankees -- to know the Senators "believe in each other," and "there's a fine line between winning and losing."
The fact is, all the the things that used to give the Senators their identity -- airtight play in their own zone, opportunistic scoring and the ability to get a lead and protect it -- have evaporated this season. Consider this:
The Senators have given up the first goal in 12 straight games, a team record. The Senators are 4-5-1-2 in those games. That didn't even happen to the 1992-93 Senators, one of the worst teams of all time. It only happened to them nine straight times. Last year, the Senators scored the first goal in a remarkable 51 games and had a 37-8-6-0 record in those games. Too often the Senators -- a team that should be dictating the play -- stand around early in games and wait to see what kind of a mood the opposition is in that night.
The Senators are 0-9 in one-goal games this season. That's a deploring stat for a team as talented as Ottawa, which should have the firepower to break through when needed in close games.
The problems start in the net and go from there. No. 1 goaltender Patrick Lalime has struggled. For example, he coughed up a big rebound on the Leafs' first goal Saturday night, failing to cleanly catch a puck and allowing it to bounce into the slot. He just hasn't been making the big saves at the right time lately and again is raising the question of whether or not he is a goaltender who can win a Cup.
The defense has been ragged in front of him. Wade Redden and Chris Phillips have been reliable but everybody else has had some serious ups and downs. The forwards have been inconsistent and there doesn't seem to be the same cohesion between the defensemen and the forwards as there was in years past. It has translated into the Senators spending much more time in their own zone and not much of a transition game, which is what the Senators used to use to blow opponents away.
There have been signs that Martin's patience is wearing thin. He dropped veteran center Radek Bonk down to left wing on the fourth line Saturday night after Bonk took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for yapping to officials. Bonk's penalty gave the Leafs a 5-on-3 and Leafs defenseman Bryan McCabe scored the winner.
"I still think this is a great team," said Lalime on Sunday. "I think the answer would be the same if you asked everybody in the room. There are great people with a lot of talent. We just have to stick to it and things will turn around."
But how long can they keep saying that?
The Senators are looking like a team in need of something, but what that is the people who are paid to come up with "something" aren't saying. Needless to say, when the owner and the president become involved in the discussions, things are getting serious.
Melnyk won't be far away this week, either, as the Senators continue a difficult part of their schedule. He's is expected to attend the Senators game in Tampa on Thursday as he has scheduled some business meetings to coincide with the Senators visit to Florida this week.
The Senators better come up with some answers before Monday night because if they play like they have lately, the Flyers are going to be leaving with a 13-game unbeaten streak and the questions will continue to mount for the Senators.
"It's a matter of believing in each other," said Martin. "It's a matter of patience. You play 82 games and you have to get better as the season moves along. A win in November is as important as a win in March. A win is a win. We've got to persevere, improve in certain areas and move along."
If the Senators don't turn it around soon, somebody might be asked to move along.
"Winning is a feeling," said Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock after his club beat the New York Islanders 5-1 Saturday night. "There is a feeling in our locker room that whenever they come to the rink that day, they are going to win."
That's a feeling the Senators used to know intimately.
Now they just meet to talk about it.
Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
9dScott Burnside and Craig Custance