x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Up and down form typical of Ottawa

The team that won 11 consecutive games in January, and 14 of 16 games before the Winter Olympics, lose eight out of nine in the NHL's post-Vancouver period.

An Olympic hangover or a long overdue dose of cold, hard reality? These appear to be the two most likely explanations for the Ottawa Senators' sudden slowdown. How does a team that won 11 consecutive games in January - and 14 of 16 games overall heading into last month's Winter Games - suddenly lose eight out of nine once the NHL's post-Vancouver schedule commences?

Welcome to Ottawa, where you never know what to expect when the Senators are in action. A quick background check: the Senators struggled through some of the league's all-time worst seasons when they arrived in the NHL in the early 1990s and needed nearly a decade to join the ranks of respectability. Then, as the likes of Daniel Alfredsson, the captain, Jason Spezza, their playmaking centre, Dany Heatley, a goal-scoring winger, Zdeno Chara, the giant defenceman, and Wade Redden, their offensive defenceman, developed into star players, Ottawa matured into Stanley Cup contenders, culminating in a trip to the 2007 final against Anaheim, which the Ducks won in five nondescript games.

Ottawa were eliminated in the first round of the 2008 post-season - and did not even qualify for the spring fling last year. But, after a forgettable first decade, the Senators finally seemed to have establish themselves. Meeting expectations, however, has not been their strength. Since the 2004/05 lockout, the Senators have promised much in the regular season but delivered little in the play-offs.

And just when you are ready to write them off, they look like world-beaters (like that 11-game winning streak that catapulted them up the Eastern Conference standings). So, it makes perfect sense that Ottawa have been battling Buffalo for Northeast Division supremacy and have pushed for a top-four seed in the East this year. After all, expectations were low entering this season, so of course, true to form, they have been a contender almost since the puck dropped in October.

At least they were in the mix in the East until their loss of form threatened to undo all of their good work this term. Here is the thing about streaks: it is usually not a good sign if a team wins and loses in bunches. Obviously, teams that can reel off long winning streaks are typically pretty good; but, teams that reel off long winning and losing streaks portray an inconsistency or lack of depth or generally have a flaw that almost always gets exposed in the play-offs.

The Senators appear to be one of these teams: unbeatable at times, and just plain awful for the rest. The good parts are obvious: Alfredsson's leadership by example, Spezza's elite skill, Mike Fisher's two-way dominance and a core of players who have been together for several seasons. Team defence has long been a signature of the franchise even if top-notch goaltending has not been. There is no denying that Ottawa's star power - and overall depth - has diminished, and their long-time inability to find an answer in net continues to plague the team.

It was hoped that Pascal Leclaire was the guy - and he still might be - but injuries and inconsistent form have hindered him. At least Brian Elliott has performed superbly in a back-up role. If Alexei Kovalev is scoring, the defence cohesive and Leclaire is on his game, the Senators can skate with the likes of Pittsburgh and New Jersey. But if their mindset falters or the goaltending is unstable, they become just another Eastern team trying to sneak into the post-season. @Email:sports@thenational.ae