- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

LITTLE FALLS, N.J. — In hockey circles, there are few people with the experience of John Muckler, the Ottawa Senators’ general manager. He’s earned enough Stanley Cup rings as a coach to take care of one hand, thumb included.

Normally a jovial sort, Muckler was reserved, cautious and concerned yesterday. People with far less experience can see what he does, that there could be plenty of trouble ahead for his team if it does not even its playoff series this afternoon against New Jersey. The Devils lead 2-1 in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference final, with Game5 Monday night in Ottawa.

What Muckler sees is an Ottawa team that appears to have lost its rudder, at least temporarily. He sees a team that desperately needs a character to step forward as one did early in Muckler’s days with Edmonton, when Mark Messier emerged as one of the great leaders in NHL history.

He sees a team that has been unable to put together complete games, a team that appears to have lost its scoring touch — although Devils goalie Martin Brodeur has something to do with that.

The Senators didn’t start playing Thursday night until the third period, and by then the Devils had the game well in hand. Their 1-0 lead doesn’t sound like much, but that’s all the edge Brodeur needs.

Senators goalie Patrick Lalime, who was nearly as good as Brodeur, accused his teammates of playing with a lack of emotion, and it appeared he might be right.

“We’ve got to be hungrier and want that game bad,” he said. “The next game, we’ve got to play like there’s no tomorrow.”

Said Ottawa coach Jacques Martin after his team worked out for more than an hour at Montclair State University: “This is not a team that you’re going to overpower. [New Jersey] is a team that’s smart, that plays well without the puck. That’s why they were No.1 all season as far as goals-against. That’s their style of game. You’ve got to be prepared to match that, make some smart decisions, attack when it’s there. What you need is the intensity to win the battles, the determination to win the battles.”

But it is tough to win those battles when you face a determined club like the Devils. It is a team that excels at playing the stifling neutral zone trap because it fully believes in it. It has been built with just the right personnel in mind, individuals who were selected because they believe defense is the answer far above offense. Thursday night’s game was the perfect score in the Devils’ playbook, 1-0, offense coming into play just enough to prevent overtime.

The Senators were built much the same way. In many ways, Ottawa is the mirror image of its opponent — a faceless collection of determined players who are all willing and capable to do grunt work. But the Senators, at the moment anyway, don’t have what New Jersey has — individuals who are capable of rallying the troops to a higher level.

“Do we need to be more aggressive? Yeah,” said Muckler. “Do we need to take control? Yes. We didn’t do that. They took control, and we went along with it. That has to be reversed.”

It won’t be, not as long as proven scorers like Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat and Daniel Alfredsson go scoreless through three games.

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