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Senators are flirting with disaster -- again

4/24/2006 - NHL


THE MORNING SKATE

Quick, of the 16 teams in the playoffs, who are the biggest choke artists? No, not St. Louis. Maybe next year.
That's right, the Ottawa Senators.

Despite regular-season success that includes five 100-point seasons in the last seven, the Senators have advanced to a conference final just once and generally have been guilty of failing to capitalize on having one of the most talented teams over this period.

Now, playing the eighth-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning, the Senators are once again facing their old playoff nemesis: the pressure boogeyman.

The Senators blew a 3-2 third-period lead Sunday to give the Bolts a crucial 4-3 win that knotted the series at 1-1 heading back to Tampa for Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Thursday.

Sunday's game was a microcosm of the team's playoff failures -- in short, their inability to put teams away. After exploding for four unanswered goals in Game 1 to win 4-1, the Senators could have put a fragile Lightning team away with a win Sunday. They couldn't do it and now Tampa head coach John Tortorella has the Sens where he wants them -- questioning their intestinal fortitude as Tortorella keeps hammering away at the fact no one gave (or gives) his team a chance to beat the mighty Senators.

Across the rink, Ottawa head coach Bryan Murray has been doing what he can to sweep away the clutter of distractions, namely the Dominik Hasek issue. Although Hasek has been skating in the hopes an adductor muscle injury sustained in the first period of the first game at the Olympics will heal sufficiently enough to allow him to play, Murray has tried to keep Hasek at arm's length. First he sent the all-world netminder off the ice during a practice before the series began, saying he wanted to make sure his two able netminders, Ray Emery and Mike Morrison, get the bulk of the work. Then, after Hasek was seen hanging around the bench during Game 1, Murray said that wouldn't happen again as league rules prohibit players who aren't dressed from being in the bench area during games.

In this case, though, out of sight won't necessarily mean out of mind, as Hasek's absence continues to be the elephant in the corner of this series.

It will be a startling turn of events if Hasek appears against the Lightning. Given that Murray must do his best to keep the issue from becoming the story of the series, a story that may have an unsettling effect on rookie Emery, whose primary task is not to cost the Senators any games. Although he gave up four goals on 36 shots Sunday, Emery's play hasn't been an issue. Yet. But a repeat performance from the Sens in Game 3 will dramatically alter the dynamics of the series.

-- Scott Burnside


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