OTTAWA (CP) - It's looking more and more like the Stanley Cup will elude the Ottawa Senators, but back in December, they weren't expected to be anywhere near the final.
On Christmas Day, the Senators were 18-18-1. There were calls for second-year head coach Bryan Murray's head and for captain Daniel Alfredsson to be traded.
But going 30-7-8 after Dec. 25 and posting the third-best second-half record in the NHL after Vancouver and Pittsburgh suddenly made Ottawa a top contender in the Eastern Conference, although first-place Buffalo was still the favourite.
Murray became the old-school wise man and Alfredsson the uncontested leader of an elite group of talent.
And they led the Senators past Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Buffalo to a first Stanley Cup appearance in their modern history.
The chances of bringing a Stanley Cup to Ottawa for the first time since the original, long-defunct Senators franchise won in 1927 are in grave peril with the team down 3-1 in the best-of-seven series heading into Game 5 in Anaheim on Wednesday night 8 p.m. ET.
Star defenceman Chris Pronger will be back in the Ducks lineup after serving his one-game suspension for knocking out Ottawa's Dean McAmmond in Game 3.
The Ducks, who are 5-0 at home in their two Cup finals (2003 and 2007), manhandled Ottawa in the opening two games at the Honda Center, even if the scores were close (3-2 and 1-0).
And teams leading 3-1 in the final are 27-1 since the best-of-seven format debuted in 1939, with the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs the only exception.
There's still a slim hope, and even if they fail, it has still been an extraordinary season.
A year ago, they were everyone's favourite and they were upset in the second round by Buffalo.
By Christmas this season, they were in 10th place and the future looked bleak. They were also dealing with an injury to star centre Jason Spezza and top defenceman Wade Redden's nagging groin problem.
Then on Dec. 27, second-line centre Mike Fisher's knee went, and on Dec. 30, winger Antoine Vermette bowed out with a sore hip.
But it was then that the Senators came together, started listening to Murray's demand for more responsible defensive play and the team started winning. Adversity does that to good teams sometimes.
Even the high-risk Spezza bought in when he returned and the Senators' young prodigy and took another step toward star status.
"I think our guys made a huge commitment in the latter part of the year and certainly in the playoffs to playing hard, putting the puck in the right spot and finishing their checks as often as they can," Murray said earlier in the post-season.
When the playoffs started, Murray grouped Spezza and Dany Heatley with Alfredsson, stacking his top three forwards on one line, and it was unstoppable through three rounds.
Only the big, physical Ducks and their superb checking line centred by Samuel Pahlsson has managed to slow them.
Spezza has been invisible in the final, and Heatley got his first goal and point of the series in Game 4 on Monday, a crushing 3-2 loss at home.
While Fisher has probably been Ottawa's best player in the final, his linemates Mike Comrie and Peter Schaefer have not refocused from the fade they went into after the first round against Pittsburgh.
And the Ottawa defence, particularly the big pair of Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov, has looked tired and vulnerable for the first time in the post-season.
Goaltender Ray Emery gave Ottawa its best shot at matching the Ducks when he did his best to steal Game 2 in Anaheim, but his 30-save effort was one save short as his teammates mustered only 16 shots and no goals on Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
McAmmond was missed in Game 4. The oft-overlooked fourth-line centre has been one of the steadier players throughout the playoffs and has five goals, most of them in key situations. Only Alfredsson (11), Heatley (7) and Spezza (7) have scored more on the team.
They will need to find the speed and energy of earlier rounds for any chance of a comeback, but after Monday night's setback, when they bombarded Anaheim for one period but got only one goal and then lapsed for two periods, it doesn't look likely.