For so much of the season, it was about fifth place for the Senators. Their comfy spot is now gone for good, the rival Toronto Maple Leafs five points ahead with just more than two weeks to go in the regular season. They've lost the opening four games of a seven-game road trip and five in a row overall, starting with a home loss to Toronto.
Now it’s about survival for the Senators, who head into crucial, crucial games Thursday night at Philadelphia and Friday night at New Jersey.
If they don’t stop the bleeding over the next two nights, they could be on the outside looking in come Saturday morning. That would be a travesty for a team that has defied all odds in surviving the losses of its top players early in the season.
"There’s no question we have to win some hockey games here if we’re going to get into the playoffs," veteran Ottawa GM Bryan Murray told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "We’ve let some points slip away. They are two big games against two very competitive hockey teams. The Flyers are playing hard. New Jersey is always difficult to score against. We’ll have to find a way to score some goals and give us a chance to win both of them."
Score goals, the most basic element of hockey. Because of injuries to Norris Trophy defenseman Erik Karlsson, star center Jason Spezza, not to mention first-line winger Milan Michalek, for most of the season, the Sens have struggled to score all season but even more so lately, and that’s been a big part of their downfall. They’re 26th in the NHL in goals per game, at 2.36.
The Senators managed to score just enough for most of the season by playing smart, inspired hockey, remaining loyal to their game plan while getting excellent goaltending and superb penalty killing (second in the NHL). But that recipe has failed of late, the Senators taking too many penalties during the five-game losing streak and not killing as many as usual.
"Right now we’re playing hard enough to lose and not hard enough to win," head coach Paul MacLean told ESPN.com. "We’re in charge in a lot of games, we get the lead, but we do things to ourselves like take penalties or turn pucks over.
"The structure of our game is good, but at times we do things to go outside of it, and that gets us in trouble."
It’s been a fine line all along for a Senators club that deserves so much credit, starting with MacLean and his coaching staff, for the way in which it has stayed afloat despite the kind of injuries that would have floored most franchises. Top-four defenseman Jared Cowen hasn’t played all season, either, and top goalie Craig Anderson missed a big chunk of time, too.
Nine of the Sens' 19 victories have been by one goal. As of late they’re just on the other side of that equation, playing well enough to win in most of those five losses but finding a way to lose instead.
"In Florida, we outshot them 41-17," Murray said. "And I thought Tuesday night in Tampa we had the better chances. But we made some mistakes. Some turnovers. We took too many penalties in Tampa."
Among those penalties was a phantom hand-on-the-puck call in the defensive zone to Peter Regin that put Ottawa down two men and cost a goal and changed the game's momentum. Tough break, yes, but that happens to all teams. You have to overcome that.
"I guess when things go south, lots of things happen that affect the outcome of the game," Murray said. "But we’re not scoring, and that’s pretty much the bottom line. It’s been a struggle most of the year with all the guys out."
It’s gut-check time.
"It’s a real test of the leadership of the whole team, starting with myself and going down through Alfie [Daniel Alfredsson] and the veteran players," MacLean said. "They’ve been so good for so long this year. It’s just a little bit here and there that we’re missing right now. We come out of our game for just a little bit, and it ends up hurting us a lot."
Really, it would be a shame to see the Senators miss the playoffs after what they’ve been able to accomplish through adversity. This is where leaders Alfredsson, Chris Phillips and Chris Neil need to convey the right message to their young teammates, several of whom began the season in the AHL.
"The leadership core has been real good," Murray said. "I think the team has worked hard.
"We’ve got a real strong group, and they know that we’ve got nine games left and we need to win more than we lose. If we don’t do that, it’s going to be a tough finish."