Senators have little margin for error

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- First, there was the "almost goal" when Ottawa center Bryan Smolinski's innocent first-period dump-in took an odd carom off the glass and fluttered just inches wide of the New Jersey's net, which had been vacated by goalie Martin Brodeur (who had gone behind the net, expecting to play the puck).

Then, there was an "actual goal" when versatile Devils' forward Sergei Brylin artfully deflected Brian Rafalski's shot from the right point past Senators goalie Patrick Lalime.

Finally, there was the "goal that wasn't" when Devils' left wing Jay Pandolfo's shot slipped between the pads of Lalime and went in and out of the net without detection from anyone. Not the goal judge. Not the referees. Not the linesmen. Not the Devils. Not the replay officials.

Well, the replay officials actually did solve the mystery, but they were about two seconds too late. The play had re-started after a stoppage. And, once play resumes, it is too late to overturn a missed call on the ice.

Believe it or not, these three things happened within an eight-minute span in the first period of New Jersey's 1-0 win over Ottawa, giving the Devils a 2-1 series lead.

The strange sequence clouded one undeniable fact about this series: the Senators aren't paying the price necessary to beat a team like the Devils.

In their first two series, the Senators were able to get away with inconsistent play. In the opening round, the New York Islanders didn't have enough talent to take full advantage of the Senators' up-and-down play. When the Isles lost Game 3 in double overtime after outplaying the Sens in regulation time, they pulled the ripcord.

In the second round, beat-up Philadelphia was tied, 2-2, after four games. Then, Flyers goalie Roman Cechmanek checked out for Games 5 and 6.

In this series, though, the Senators are not substantially more talented than the Devils. And they won't be getting any gift games from Brodeur.

Add it up, and it's obvious. Ottawa is going to have to earn a trip to the Finals.

"We competed in the third period," said Senators coach Jacques Martin. "We have to play like that for three periods."

It's hard to believe the Sens would have to be reminded of such a thing in Game 3 of the conference finals.

A few moments later, captain Daniel Alfredsson pulled a page out of Mark Messier's playoff textbook by predicting his team would win Game 4. It would ring even more true if Alfredsson would make some noise on the ice. In Game 3, Alfredsson continued to be a non-factor in 5-on-5 play. Amazingly, he has just one assist at even-strength in his team's 14 playoff games.

Alfredsson's ineffective play has allowed the Devils to focus on Marian Hossa, who was a target of several nasty hits and crosschecks throughout the evening. The constant pounding seemed to take a toll -- on several occasions, Hossa had to shake off the pain to continue.

Lalime, who turned in a strong performance in defeat, saw the game very clearly from his crease.

"We've got to be hungrier than we were tonight," said Lalime, who made 23 saves. "The next game we've got to play like there's no tomorrow."

If they don't, there won't be too many tomorrows in this season for the Senators.

E.J. Hradek writes hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com.