MONTREAL - When the Ottawa Senators reeled off 13 wins in their first 14 games of the season, the question buzzing around their locker room was whether or not they could challenge for the best season in NHL history.
But now, after compiling a mediocre 28-27-7 record since, the Senators are wondering whether or not they'll be playing meaningful hockey come playoff time.
Ottawa's 7-5 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Monday dropped the Senators seven points out of the Northeast Division lead, essentially knocking them out of contention for the division title and the automatic top-three playoff seed that comes with it.
But that was not the biggest concern for Sens GM and head coach Bryan Murray.
"Are we going to make the playoffs?" he asked. "That's what we have to decide first."
Of course, for the Senators to miss the playoffs would require a complete meltdown over their final six games. Three wins would assure them of a spot, but even two wins should be enough to hold off the ninth-place Washington Capitals who sit seven points back of Ottawa with six games left.
"This is no time to panic," said Senators centre Jason Spezza, who extended his points streak to seven games with a third period goal. "If we panic now we may as well pack it up and go home for the year. There are a lot of people who are going to doubt us right now, and if we can't believe in ourselves we have no chance of winning this thing."
However, as unlikely as missing the playoffs would be for the Senators, it's hard to believe the team is in a position to even keep the debate alive considering this season's hot start and last year's run to the Stanley Cup final.
"We're obviously not going to be the favourites going into the playoffs now," said Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson, who had three assists Monday. "Maybe that will suit us just fine."
Ottawa's last two games in particular have been of concern, blowing a 4-2 lead against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday to lose 5-4, and then falling behind 7-1 against Montreal before coming back with four goals in the third period to make it respectable.
Over a span of just over three periods in those two games, Ottawa was outscored 10-1.
"Losing the lead the other night and coming out the way we did is obviously not good," said Sens sniper Dany Heatley, who scored twice Monday night. "We haven't played that well for the last two games, we realize that. But we're going to play better in the next six games and get in the playoffs."