Ottawa wants to slay 'underachiever' label

Updated: April 20, 2004, 4:31 AM ET
By Chris Stevenson | Special to ESPN.com

TORONTO -- The words are printed in red on the front of the old-school truckers' hats the Ottawa Senators wear around the dressing room: "Slay The Dragon."

It is their rallying cry for this playoff season, but the Senators can slay two dragons for the price of one Tuesday night with a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal.

Mike Fisher
APSens' Mike Fisher scored in the second overtime Sunday to force the Leafs to a Game 7.
The dragon can be many things for the Senators: their reputation as playoff underachievers, or it can be the Leafs themselves, the franchise singularly responsible for many of the Senators' most disappointing playoff failures.

It's not often in hockey that one game can be used to take the measure of a franchise.

But that is the situation in which the Senators, the preseason consensus pick to win the Stanley Cup by most forecasters, find themselves heading into the final act of the Battle of Ontario IV.

Potential champions, or doomed to be "choking dogs"? (As one Canadian newspaper likes to refer to them.)

The Senators have earned themselves a reputation for being a splendidly talented team, but lacking some critical ingredient to make the transition from a good team to a great one. Just about every time they have faced a critical situation, they have come up wanting.

"We don't look at the negatives. We don't bother with that stuff," said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, who, after the Senators had a no-show in Game 5 here, said the Senators would win Game 6 and return to Toronto to win Game 7.

"We just look at this as a great opportunity."

They can change their "underachievers" tag Tuesday night against the Leafs, their hated provincial rivals, and seize the chance for a double dose of redemption.

The Leafs have won all three of their postseason meetings to date, eliminating the Senators in seven games the last time they met in 2002.

The Senators had a chance to close that series out in Game 6, but blew a 2-0 lead in that game and came up with a pathetic effort in Game 7, losing 3-0 and going a long way toward earning their reputation as big-game no-shows.

The Senators will play the fourth Game 7 of their 12-year history Tuesday night, and a win in that situation will be their first.

After an appalling no-show in Game 5 (a 2-0 loss) in this series, the Senators got off to a slow start in Game 6 before rallying for a win in double overtime on a goal by Mike Fisher.

"We've got to bounce back with a good effort," said Fisher, "and we haven't done that so far."

The Senators haven't won back-to-back games in the series yet. They've followed up their three wins with efforts ranging from decent (Game 3) to pathetic (Game 5).

We've got to initiate instead of playing wait-and-see. We've got to take it to them right off the bat.
Senators goalie Patrick Lalime

The Leafs, once freewheeling and willing to trade chances with anyone, lost Mats Sundin, their captain and top offensive threat in Game 4 and have since retreated into a defensive shell against the younger and faster Senators, leaning heavily on veteran goaltender Ed Belfour.

The Leafs have been trying to play a defensive game, but the question persists: Do they have the personnel to do it? They have been depending on their top defensive duo of Brian Leetch and Bryan McCabe (close to 36 and 34 minutes, respectively, in Game 6).

The two can't play much more than that, which means the likes of Aki Berg and Bryan Marchment have to play at some point. This was the duo that was victimized on the winner in Game 6 when Senators rookie Antoine Vermette beat Berg behind the Toronto net to set up Fisher.

But the Senators have made it easier for the Leafs, for the most part, by sitting back and playing into the Leafs' hands.

"We've got to initiate instead of playing wait-and-see," said Senators goaltender Patrick Lalime, who was a big question mark entering the series but who has been solid.

"We've got to take it to them right off the bat."

Sundin remains a long shot to be available for Game 7. He is nursing a suspected hip injury and skated on his own -- gingerly -- Monday.

"He just tested it today. It wasn't even a good test, it was just preliminary," said Leafs head coach Pat Quinn, who is at his cranky best. (He had a cameraman's tape confiscated at the Corel Centre after Quinn was taped talking to Leafs tough guy Tie Domi. Quinn apparently was worried some injury information could be passed on to the Senators.)

"I just wanted to see how it feels," Sundin said. "I haven't been on the ice since Wednesday. I'll try it tomorrow morning and see how it feels."

This is a time for the Senators to turn a page. They have been rescued from bankruptcy, and, under the ownership of billionaire Eugene Melnyk, they made some bold moves at the trade deadline.

The dawn of a new era, or just a continuation of their long and stormy nights?

Melnyk has no doubts about the outcome of Game 7.

"We're gonna kill 'em," he said.

And slay a couple of dragons, too?

Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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