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Sens have to dig themselves out from first-half hole

by Karl Samuelson

"It hasn't been easy for anybody, coaches or players. It has been a tough first half of the year. But you know what? You still believe. I believe that this group can win some hockey games and still be a good team."
-- Craig Hartsburg, Senators coach

Winston Churchill once said, "If you are going through hell, keep going."

The former Prime Minister of Great Britain spoke the words to inspire his citizens as the nation endured the trauma of the darkest days of World War II. It is a phrase that today wouldn't look out of place in the Ottawa Senators' dressing room.

To a man, everyone wearing a Senators jersey is going through his own form of hell after a dreadful first half of 14-21-6. But they have only one option -- keep going. Though not impossible, the team will have to go on a three-month tear just to snag the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

"We're not in a very good position for a playoff spot to be realistic," admitted Ottawa General Manager Bryan Murray. "I think we can win some hockey games in the near future, I'm hoping, get some confidence back in this club and get rid of the frustration for all of us."

Nobody would have predicted at the start of the season that the Senators would be bouncing around the bottom of the standings in mid-January.

"And who would have thought that we would be the lowest scoring team in the League?" said Ottawa defenseman Christoph Schubert. "Just look at how many unbelievable players we have on this team. We went to the (Stanley Cup) Final two years ago and the last three years we have been the highest scoring team in the League and now we are the lowest. It doesn't make sense."

No sense at all.

This is a team with a string of 11 consecutive playoff berths; three world-class players in Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Dany Heatley; a solid supporting cast that includes young veterans like Schubert, Anton Volchenkov, Mike Fisher, Chris Neil, Antoine Vermette, and Chris Kelly; plus emerging youngsters Nick Foligno, Brian Lee and Alexandre Picard.

Some suggest Murray is on thin ice unless he pulls off a major deal and immediately injects some enthusiasm into the squad. There is no shortage of teams willing to move a proven veteran for the Senators' first pick at the 2009 Entry Draft, but the Senators are in no position to deal prospects. Murray inherited a weak farm system when he became GM in 2007 and the savvy hockey executive is not about to sacrifice the team's future for what could prove to be a quick fix at best.

"I can save my job by trading our first-round pick, probably, and making the team a little more competitive," said Murray, who drafted franchise players Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in the lower half of the first round in 2003 while serving as general manager of the Anaheim Ducks. "I can (serve) up our first-round pick and get a decent player, but that's the wrong thing to do. It's OK for me or the coach to do that, but for the franchise it's not the right thing to do."

Others point to first-year coach Craig Hartsburg as the scapegoat, but he says he isn't bothered by the negative speculation about his future in Ottawa. His main concern is how negativity can impact his players.

"My job is to focus on getting the players ready," said Hartsburg, who has previously been an NHL coach with both the Chicago Blackhawks (1995-98) and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (1998-2000) before joining the Senators last June. "It hasn't been easy for anybody, coaches or players. It has been a tough first half of the year. But you know what? You still believe. I believe that this group can win some hockey games and still be a good team. The coaching staff are not putting our heads in the sand and saying it's not our fault. There are things that we have to continue to work at and get better. If we haven't done our jobs, then shame on us, but there's not a day that goes by where we don't try to find a way. We will continue to work and compete as a coaching staff to find solutions for this group."

Hartsburg knew the team needed work when he took the job, but he didn't expect progress to come so slowly.

"We knew the team went through a real tough time last year, but we thought that we could get it straightened out quickly," said Hartsburg. "It hasn't happened. … The frustrating part for me as a coach is we have played inconsistent hockey, and you look at yourself and ask why. The inconsistency of our game has been frustrating. Now we have to focus on what we can control and what we are here to do. The coaches coach and the players have to play."

It is time to turn the page. Hartsburg knows it's critical to keep the players positive in spite of their record.

"We have to be focused and we still have to enjoy playing hockey," said Hartsburg. "Players play best when they come to the rink and enjoy being here. It's awful tough when you're losing, but we've got to try to keep the focus on the game and players playing their best. We are not happy with the way we are playing. We have to be better with our competing and our executing."

Ultimately, it's the players who perform on the ice. One player catching more than his share of criticism is sharpshooter Dany Heatley.

"A player like Dany probably puts way too much pressure on himself just to score," said Hartsburg. "But Dany can do other things. He has played some of his best games this year when he hasn't scored. (He has) been a better all-round player when he hasn't focused just on scoring. That's the area with Dany right now, to focus on being a good all-round hockey player, not just a goal scorer."

So what is it going to take to get the team back on the winning track?

"It starts with the work ethic," said Schubert. "Finishing hits, coming back hard, making good passes. That's a good start right there. The chances are going to come. We have tried, but we just haven't had the bounces this year to get anything going. But the last 40 games happened. It happens to every team and this year it was our turn. Now we've got to go game by game, and it doesn't really matter who we play, we've got to focus on our game and how we are going to perform on the ice. If we show character we can develop our game again. It might mean that we have to score dirty goals. We can't have those 14 passes in front of the net and then score the empty-netter. We need to play straight hockey. Go down the wing, put the puck on the net and go for the dirty rebounds."

Until very recently, the team has shown very little will to win.

"The attitude we have to bring is to fight every minute we are out there -- 60 minutes, 65 minutes, shootouts," said Schubert. "It's what we haven't done all year. We have played for 50 minutes, maybe 55 minutes and some nights we only played for 30 minutes. I don't think this a goalie problem. I don't think it's the coaches' problem. It's our (the players) problem. It's a team thing. Everybody is angry and that's what we have to be. You need to laugh once in a while and can't mope around because that won't help. But we have to get ready for every game and make sure we play every minute of every game."

True enough. Churchill also cautioned so many years ago that, "It's no use saying, 'We are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary."

"And we've got to believe," Schubert said. "It seems that we have tried everything. We started yelling at each other. We tried group meetings. We tried having single meetings. Now it has come to the point that we really have to believe in this team. We've got to believe in the crest that is right in the center of our dressing room."
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