Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The NHL regular season is already more than a quarter of the way finished, a fact that is not lost on the disappointing Ottawa Senators.
Like many other clubs, Ottawa headed into the 2013-14 campaign with aspirations of competing for a Stanley Cup title, but presently the Senators would settle for consistency.
Pretty much since the season began in early October, the Senators have seemed to be trapped in some sort of malaise. At first it was deemed too early in the schedule to worry but with the midway point of the campaign just around the corner, Ottawa's search for an answer to its problems could get more and more desperate with each passing day.
For Senators head coach Paul MacLean, however, the answer his players are looking for is a simple one: work harder.
At 10-13-4, the Senators and their 24 points are not currently part of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. But, before Ottawa can even think about getting back to the postseason for a third straight spring, the club has to find a way to compete at a consistent level on a nightly basis.
Ottawa has managed to string together consecutive wins on just two separate occasions this season, taking two in a row on Oct. 15 and 17 before posting a three-game winning streak from Nov. 5-9. The longer of the club's two streaks came to a crashing halt with a 5-0 loss against visiting Philadelphia on Nov. 12, a setback that signifies how difficult it has been for Ottawa to build any sort of momentum this season.
At the heart of Ottawa's problem is an inability to slow down the opposition's offense. The Sens, who added sniping winger Bobby Ryan in a blockbuster trade with Anaheim over the summer, are scoring a solid 2.89 goals per game this season (8th in the NHL) but are tied for 27th in the league with an average of 3.22 goals surrendered per outing.
Lackluster play from presumptive No. 1 goaltender Craig Anderson is one possible answer why Ottawa has struggled so greatly on defense this season. With a 3.51 goals against average and .889 save percentage to go with his 6-8-2 record, it's clear Anderson needs to do a better job between the pipes, but it's not all about goaltending. After all, backup Robin Lehner has turned in a solid 2.44 GAA and spectacular .933 save percentage this season, but he is still only 4-5-2 on the season.
For MacLean, the difference between winning and losing does not reside in the crease, but rather in the hearts of the guys skating in front of Anderson and Lehner. Instead of waiting for a goaltender to save the day, Ottawa's head coach is asking his players to look deep inside and admit that the effort they've given this season simply hasn't been good enough.
"I don't believe in magic or wizardry, I believe in hard work and we need more of that," MacLean told the media after practice on Monday.
"I'm not sure that we play hard enough, long enough on a consistent basis as we've said more times than enough. We need to flat out work at it harder and work at it longer. There's no magic and there's no potion for that, we just have to come here every day and get ready to work."
Of course, the loss of longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson to free agency this past summer could have something to do with Ottawa's lack of a consistent effort. Alfredsson set a standard of professionalism for others to follow during his 17 seasons in Ottawa and his surprising departure to Detroit left a leadership void in Ottawa.
That's not to say Jason Spezza wasn't a good pick to take over the captaincy, just that he has a long way to go before he can live up to Alfredsson's legacy.
Perhaps, now that Alfredsson has finally made his much-anticipated return to Ottawa, the Sens can move forward without him. Alfie was honored with a pre- game tribute on Saturday before his Red Wings turned in a 4-2 road victory, dealing Ottawa its sixth loss in eight games.
Maybe Alfredsson's triumphant return to Canada's capital city was the symbolic end to an era Ottawa needed, and now Spezza and this group of Sens can move forward out of their former leader's shadow. But that's not an explanation MacLean would likely subscribe to. For him, it's all about not putting in a good enough effort to compete in a league where the line between success and failure is razor thin.
The bad news is Ottawa hasn't come close to living up to the expectations so far this season. The good news is MacLean doesn't think it's too late for his club to start delivering on the promise.
To hear MacLean wax philosophical on the current state of his team, it almost feels like he believes the Sens are stuck in a hockey version of purgatory, a place situated somewhere between glory and absolute misery.
"You can be very close but still be really, really far away. That's where we are now," MacLean mused. "We're close, but we're still a long way from where we need to be."
If you've been paying attention to MacLean, you'll guess the way to get there is all about putting in the effort.