OTTAWA - The dark cloud that has hovered over the Ottawa Senators since mid-season continues to bring the team down with Jason Spezza possibly the latest casualty.
The star centre missed practice Sunday, still feeling the effects of a leg injury sustained Friday night. It's not clear whether he'll suit up for Game 3 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday (7 p.m. ET) with his team in dire need of a season-saving victory.
"We'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out," Senators head coach Bryan Murray said Sunday after practice. "He couldn't skate today, he felt, so we'll just have to wait and see."
Spezza did not speak to the media Sunday. The previous day, when he also didn't skate in an optional practice, he told reporters he thought he would probably be back for Game 3. Already without star captain Daniel Alfredsson as well as centres Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly, Ottawa can ill-afford yet another crippling injury after losing the opening two games of their best-of-seven, Eastern Conference quarter-final series.
"We really don't look at that," said rugged Senators winger Chris Neil. "We'll have 20 guys who will suit up for tomorrow' game and whoever it is, that's who it is. We aren't feeling sorry for ourselves at all. That's just an opportunity for other guys to step up and do their job.
"Who knows who will play tomorrow but we'll be raring to go in front of our own fans."
Those fans don't appear to be quite as excited this spring. A year ago Senators flags could be seen on nearly every car in the city, a tremendous buzz enveloping the Canadian capital because there was a feeling the team was in for a long run. The fans did indeed get that long run. Whether it's because the team has been in decline for half a season or because of the injuries to key players, there isn't the same kind of anticipation here this time around. In fact, there aren't nearly as many flags on cars.
Whether or not there's apathy among Ottawa fans, Murray hopes the crowd at Scotiabank Place on Monday night can help rev up his team.
"I hope they give us a boost," said Murray. "I looked at all the games around the league the last couple of days and the towel waving and all the things that went on, they (the fans) don't play the game but they do give emotion and hopefully that would lift the players. ... We hope that they'll help."
The Senators do indeed need a boost from their fans because they look like a tired team, both mentally and physically. In fact, both teams from last year's Stanley Cup final are on the ropes right now, the Anaheim Ducks also down 2-0 in their first-round series with the Dallas Stars. Are both teams feeling the effects of last year's long playoff and short off-season?
"It is a grind," said Murray. "The Ducks have got Corey Perry out and he's a big part of what they do.
"Injuries, mentally and physically catch up to you if you play a lot of games year after year. Teams have done it in the past but I don't know that many teams have the depth to carry on when they have guys that are tired or hurt or whatever it may be. They may bounce back, they certainly have the ability to do so, but it seemed last night like they just couldn't keep up the pace throughout the whole game."
Murray was talking about the Ducks, but he may just as well have been talking about his team. The Senators may show their nay-sayers wrong Monday night with a big win, but right now Ottawa looks like beat-up boxer and that needs his trainer to stop the fight.
Notes: If Spezza can't play, Murray said rookie centre Alexander Nikulin would step into his spot in the lineup. The 22-year-old Russian was recalled from AHL Binghamton and skated Sunday in practice. He had 14 goals and 36 assists in 71 games with the Baby Sens this season ... Antoine Vermette centred the team's top line between Dany Heatley and Cory Stillman at practice, the same unit that Murray threw together in the third period of Friday's 5-3 loss ... Murray on Heatley, who has yet to score in this series: "I think his effort is fine, I think the opportunity to get shots on goal hasn't come to him. The end result is that he hasn't been able to get points or goals. We know that Dany is one of those people for us that has to bring that to the table." ... The Penguins skated in Pittsburgh on Sunday before flying to Ottawa.