Senators being outplayed in every facet of the game

OTTAWA -- Preparations for a funeral are being made, that much is certain. What remains unknown is just when the body will arrive. And beyond that, what will happen with the body once it does present itself.

The Ottawa Senators are a shattered, tattered example of how very tiny is the window of opportunity for success that presents itself to teams in the new NHL. A year ago this city was alive with excitement as the Senators rolled into the postseason on a hot streak boasting top-level players, solid defense and terrific special teams. The Sens beat down years of playoff failure by rolling to its first Stanley Cup with a 12-3 record, and even though they got manhandled by Anaheim in the final, there was no reason to think it couldn't happen again and again.

That optimism seemed well founded when the Sens jumped out to a 15-2 start, and yet a year after that magic playoff run began, the city is deathly quiet. Fans are resigned to the fact that this team, trailing 3-0 in its first-round series against Pittsburgh, is done.

Walking into Scotiabank Place a day after the Penguins once again showed themselves to be superior in almost every facet of the game with a 4-1 win, it seems as though the murals on the wall showing the thousands of red-clad Senators fans and the two teams shaking hands at the end of last year's first-round win over Pittsburgh happened to a different team entirely.

Indeed, there were the Penguins, whooping it up in front of the hand-shaking mural, kicking around a soccer ball Tuesday morning, oblivious to the scene depicting their playoff exit -- just as they seem oblivious to the Senators' efforts to gain any kind of traction in this series.

Now, the question that waits to be answered -- apart from when this series will formally be closed, possibly Wednesday (if not then, likely Saturday back in Pittsburgh), is how the Senators might pry open that window of opportunity next season.

The changes will be many with this team, and they could start at the top.

In the wake of the Canucks' seemingly rash firing of Dave Nonis, anything is possible, even with a veteran hockey man like GM Bryan Murray. And Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is notoriously short-fused.

He fired GM John Muckler a year ago, even though the Sens had had their most successful year ever. Would he dump the blame for a wasted season at Murray's feet? Possibly.

But Murray is a top team-builder and talent evaluator. He'll get one more chance to place the right coach behind the bench, or he should. But Murray will have other fundamental decisions.

Wade Redden is gone for sure. He's headed to the open market, but his stock has fallen precipitously in the past two seasons, and he has been a non-factor in this series.

Likewise, troubled netminder Ray Emery won't be back; he'll either be traded or, more likely, bought out of his contract.

Mike Commodore and Cory Stillman were acquired from Carolina at the trade deadline, and both are unrestricted free agents. Stillman might be a fit. His hometown is a couple of hours west of Ottawa, and he's a reliable scorer when he's healthy, which he hasn't been in Ottawa. Commodore will be gone.

The Senators do have youngsters who have proven they are close to being everyday NHLers, including Cody Bass and Nick Foligno, who was the best Senator in Game 3. Both youngsters scored their first-ever playoff goals in this series. Defenseman Brian Lee has not looked out of place. If they can continue to evolve, they can fill some of the holes that will appear in the lineup.

The elephant in the corner of the Senators' dressing room has been the play of Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza. Both signed whopper contract extensions this year; Heatley for six more years beyond this season, and seven for Spezza, for a combined $94 million.

Both are top-level NHL scorers, yet both have shown a curious lack of production over the past two playoff rounds. When the Senators have needed their highest-paid players to be at their best in the final against Anaheim and this spring when the Senators were banged up playing without captain Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly, the pair have been phantoms. Spezza got his first point, an assist, in Monday's loss. Heatley has one assist, too. The pair has combined for one goal in the past eight playoff games.

"It just shows how tough it is to win I think in this league, and I think it gets taken for granted sometimes, even by us as players," Spezza said Tuesday.

"We're still a pretty good young core of guys and we're gaining experience. We don't like to see ourselves in this position, and it's frustrating to all of us. I know myself, I feel like I'm still learning a bit on the job. Last year we had the great run and scored a lot of big goals and made clutch plays, and this year we haven't been able to do that. Maybe there's some things in my game I want to tweak. This maybe helps open up your eyes a little bit," he added. "The fortunate thing is you're still young still and can still learn from it. I think it would be a little drastic to blow up the core of guys we got. We're learning together here."

The problem is that when your top-end players don't play like they should -- or at the level their salaries suggest they should -- it throws the system out of whack; it accelerates the closing of that window of opportunity.

The bottom line is, you need talented players to succeed. The Penguins are winning all the battles, but they also are icing one of the most talented teams in the NHL right now.

"That's hockey. That's what hockey is. That's why we like to get good players, and we have to pay them too much money to keep them and allow them to be the stars for you and win hockey games for you. Their stars are winning hockey games for them," Murray said.

Would Murray try to trade either of his star players?

He'll have to assess whether their struggles in the face of adversity the past two playoff rounds are part of the maturation process or a signal of some kind of character deficiency. The coach will look not just to Heatley and Spezza over the next day or so for clues as to their value to the Senators organization going forward.

"We've got to look at the players that come to play, work hard and do everything in their powers, to their ability level, and I qualify it that way, but to their ability level, to help this organization be good going forward. Tomorrow night is an indicator of that without a doubt," Murray said.

Murray met with his players before practice Tuesday and told them that they have a choice in preparing for Game 4: They can fold their tent, or they can follow the plan to the end.

"You make a decision personally and as a group to show up and play hard, and if you lose you can say you lost because they were better and we played and tried as hard as we could and we couldn't handle it," Murray said.

Cue the funeral dirge.


The one thing Murray hopes to capitalize on with his team down 3-0 against the Penguins is a little historic mojo. Only two NHL teams have won after being down 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and the 1975 New York Islanders. Given the pattern of 33 years between historic comebacks, we're due for one this year.

"I'm trying to think 33 years ago what I was doing. It might have happened to me 33 years ago in junior hockey. We lost 7-2, 5-2, 7-2 in the first three games and came back and won the series four games straight," Murray said of his days coaching Tier II Junior A hockey in the Ottawa area.

Murray's Rockland Nationals found themselves down against the Guelph Platers when they made their stirring comeback.

"They even had bought the beer for their party," Murray recalled.

After the Nationals defeated Guelph, they went on to win the Centennial Cup as national champs of the Tier II circuit. The only problem is that all of this happened in 1976, 32 years ago. Wonder if close to every 33 years counts?

Daniel Alfredsson did not skate Tuesday, but it appears the gutsy Ottawa captain will play in Game 4 Wednesday night. Head coach Bryan Murray said Tuesday he has been assured that Alfredsson, the team's most important player, won't expose himself to any long-term injury by continuing to play. He returned to the lineup Monday night for Game 3 but was clearly hampered by what is believed to be a rib or cartilage injury sustained in the Senators' second-to-last regular-season game.

"I've said this forever, with players, they are the ones that dictate if they are healthy enough to play or not. I would never ask a guy to play; I never have. If he feels that he's hurting to the point that it would further damage him, I would not encourage him to play. And I didn't encourage him to play yesterday. He feels, and I've talked to the doctors and the training staff about this, that the way he's harnessed up right now that he can play and nothing further can really happen. He can be sore and all that afterwards, but it's not going to be something that's going to be career-threatening," Murray said.

Gary Roberts and Ryan Malone were both absent from the Pittsburgh practice Tuesday. Roberts will be a game-time decision; he has a sore groin and missed Game 3. Malone was just given a "maintenance" day, head coach Michel Therrien said.

Quote of the day belongs to Marian Hossa, who was asked if he was surprised that his Penguins were up 3-0 in the series.

"I don't think we expected to be maybe 3-0 so early, but it's a good thing," Hossa said.

Guess he expected them to be up 3-0 later.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.