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Hartsburg breaks up Sens' 'Big 3'

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com
It boggles the hockey-educated mind.

How do the Ottawa Senators go from being the most prolific scoring offense in the NHL to one of the worst in a span of six months? The answer, according to Ottawa coach Craig Hartsburg, is commitment and trust.

"I think there are some issues there (with trust)," Hartsburg said. "I think there is some … they all like each other. I see them, they talk to each other. But there has to be more rallying and hunger to be a good team. In Ottawa, for so long, it's been this one group of players, the big three (Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley) and, yeah, they are awesome and great, but I believe they can make other players on our team better as well. Trust is a big thing on a team."

That's why Hartsburg decided to separate his top three offensive players during practice Thursday and Friday and, by all accounts, for the foreseeable future.

Alfredsson understands his coach's assessment regarding trust.

"Trust is something you build," Alfredsson said. "It's believing in what the guy is going to do next to you and knowing what he will do. We've been on our way a few times this year where we thought we were going in the right direction and then took a step back. It's been frustrating for everybody, but we know we can't feel sorry for ourselves. We just have to keep working and believing."

Hartsburg is hoping that by splitting up Ottawa's feared threesome, he'll see a reversal of offensive fortune. The Senators have scored just four goals in the past four games and have lost eight straight road games, dating back to an Oct. 30 victory over Florida.

"Those three (Alfredsson, Spezza and Heatley) aren't winning games for us anymore, so there has to be a different approach to this thing," Hartsburg said. "That's what we've been trying to say since day one, but, collectively, I don't think the guys were buying into that. They have no choice now and, hopefully, it'll make us a better team."

Hartsburg had Alfredsson skating with Mike Fisher and Antoine Vermette; Heatley with Nick Foligno and Chris Kelly; Spezza with Jarkko Ruutu and Chris Neil and, as a fourth unit, Cody Bass with Shean Donovan and Christoph Schubert.

"I think this could be a real good thing for us," Alfredsson said. "It looks like we can spread it out now and I think Heatley, Spezza and myself now have handle the puck a little more instead of ... sometimes when we play together we're expecting the other guy to do something and now we have to push ourselves a little more to help everyone else."

There was a time, last season in fact, when the Sens led the NHL with 258 goals and a 3.15 goals per game average. The club also topped the charts with the most goals scored at 5-on-5 with 164 (2.00 goals per game average). This season, the Senators are next to last in average goals per game (2.29) and 5-on-5 play (38 goals for a 1.31 average).

Spezza, Alfredsson and Heatley have struggled after finishing among the top 15 in the League in 2007-08 -- Spezza eighth with 92 points (34 goals), Alfredsson ninth at 89 points (40 goals) and Heatley 15th with 82 points (41 goals).

"It's frustrating because I've had three pretty good seasons in a row and this is kind of the first time I've struggled, but it's part of being a player," Spezza said. "You know it's not going to go so smooth all the time and it's not about line combinations either. It's trying to get your confidence back and get back to what you do best and right now, I'm just trying to work hard and hopefully get some bounces and that confidence back."

Entering Friday's game with the New Jersey Devils, Heatley was 34th in the League with 28 points (14 goals), Alfredsson 50th with 26 (8 goals) and Spezza a distant 84th with 22 (12 goals).

"People ask me why we won't sit Spezza," Hartsburg said. "Well he's playing with two guys now who are honest, hard-working guys (in Ruutu and Neil). If I'm Jason Spezza, I'm going to play my heart out because those two guys are workers. If he doesn't do it then we probably have no other choice then to say sit down, but this has got to be a group decision."

"You can work hard all you want, but if guys aren't together and, as a unit, supporting each other, than you're not going to have success so that's the key for us."
-- Mike Fisher

Senators forward Mike Fisher, who has just 3 goals and 9 points in 25 games, is optimistic the team will rediscover its offensive chemistry.

"You can work hard all you want, but if guys aren't together and, as a unit, supporting each other, than you're not going to have success so that's the key for us," Fisher said. "I think spreading some of the offense out and having goal-scorers mixed with physical guys is good; it's kind of what we're looking at and all the lines are pretty even now. If we play hard and crash the net, we'll find it easier to score some goals. That's the mentality we have to take instead of trying to play too cute and pretty."

Senators defenseman Jason Smith agrees.

"One, two or three players can't lead a team on a nightly basis," Smith said. "The League is so competitive that you need everybody playing; you need your whole roster competing at a high level and working and we've been inconsistent with that. I feel we've been working hard at times, but maybe not as smart as we need to be. We need to be a better team from start to finish each game."

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.
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