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'Our spirits are still high'

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Senators defenceman Chris Phillips believes it's important for his team to maintain a positive attitude in the face of a 1-6-1 skid since the end of the Olympic break (Getty Images).

The Ottawa Senators' biggest fan remains confident brighter days are just around the corner for his struggling hockey team.

While Eugene Melnyk admits "this is not the team we had before the Olympics," the Senators owner still believes he has an "elite" group on his hands that will make its presence felt by the time the Stanley Cup playoffs begin.

And yes, he has no doubt that Ottawa will be among the eight post-season qualifiers in the Eastern Conference.

"I have absolute confidence that with the players we have and the coaching staff we have, we will obviously make the playoffs," Melnyk said in a radio interview earlier today on Toronto's FAN 590.

"There's no question in my mind and once the playoffs start, it's a whole new ballgame and our guys are going to rise to the top."

One might suggest there's no direction to go but up after Thursday night's disheartening 6-3 loss to the Thrashers in Atlanta that dropped the Senators' record to 1-6-1 since the Olympic break. They've now fallen into a tie for sixth place in the East with the Philadelphia Flyers (both with 79 points) and are just a single point up on the seventh-place Montreal Canadiens.

It's a startling turnaround for a team that rode a 14-2-0 hot streak to top spot in the Eastern Conference heading into the Olympic break. Now the Buffalo Sabres hold a five-point edge in the division with two games in hand. But Melnyk, "always the optimist," sees it all in a different light.

"We went 14-2 and then 1-7," he said. "That's 15-9 if you add them together. That's another way of looking at it."

"I have absolute confidence that with the players we have and the coaching staff we have, we will obviously make the playoffs. There's no question in my mind and once the playoffs start, it's a whole new ballgame and our guys are going to rise to the top." - Eugene Melnyk
Maybe that's the kind of thinking the Senators need to adopt to turn the tide. Defenceman Chris Phillips suggested today the worst thing this group can do now is get too down on itself.

"It’s harder to stay positive (now), but that’s a big role for the guys who have been around for a long time," Phillips said after the Senators practised in Dallas earlier today in preparation for Saturday afternoon's matchup with the Stars (2 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200). "What’s done is done ... If you hang your heads, it just gets tougher and tougher.

"You’ve got to just look forward, put a smile on your face and get ready to play the next day. Stick with it, stick together and try to turn things around."

Head coach Cory Clouston insisted it's simply a matter of "getting back to playing the way we were playing" before the break.

"Believe it or not, our spirits are still high," he said. "We still feel good about ourselves. But we know we’ve got ourselves into this mess and we’re the only ones who can get ourselves out of it.

"This is when we really have to buckle down, do what we do best and show our true character. That’s what it comes down to. It’s a tough time for us, but we’re the only ones who can change this and turn it around. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves."

This group of Senators has surely been there before. Their franchise-record 11-game winning streak in January was preceded by a five-game losing skid. Perhaps it's an omen, but the turnaround began on the heels of a 6-1 drubbing in Atlanta.

"What’s done is done ... If you hang your heads, it just gets tougher and tougher.You’ve got to just look forward, put a smile on your face and get ready to play the next day. Stick with it, stick together and try to turn things around." - Chris Phillips
"We've dug ourselves into this hole and we've been in this situation before," said Clouston. "Because we've been in this situation before, we should at least be able to draw some strength from that."

The Senators are also doing their best to turn a blind eye toward any suggestions that they're on the verge of putting their playoff chances in any sort of jeopardy. They're still a solid eight points clear of ninth-place Atlanta and the New York Rangers.

"I think there's a bit of desperation now because we realize we've kind of given away our cushion a little bit," said centre Jason Spezza. "But we earned our cushion. It was there for us to have and now we've just got to pick it up down the stretch and we'll be in (good) shape."

Added Phillips: "We don't like the way it's going, but nothing we're going to do today changes what's (already) happened. You look forward and if you win all the rest of your games, you're in the playoffs. It doesn't matter what's happened the last few games. (We need to) stay positive and keep going."

Around the boards

Forward Milan Michalek, who suffered a left leg injury Thursday night in an awkward collision with the Thrashers net, skated only for 15 minutes today. Clouston has declared him "doubtful" for Saturday's game in Dallas. "We're going to look at him again later this evening," he said. "But it doesn't appear to be nearly as bad as we first thought." ... Mike Fisher, Daniel Alfredsson and Filip Kuba all took "maintenance" days off practice but are expected to be in the lineup on Saturday, as is Matt Carkner, who sat out Thursday ... The road trip concludes Monday in Montreal against the Canadiens (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200).


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