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Senators hope pep talk from owner Melnyk helps end post-Olympic slump

MONTREAL - The Ottawa Senators have been either red hot or stone cold this season. Even owner Eugene Melnyk stepped in to try to stop their latest struggles.

After all, it's getting late in the NHL season and the playoff spot that looked to be a sure bet during a team record winning run before the Olympic break appears a lot less secure after a post-Olympic let down.

After clearing his plan with general manager Brian Murray, Melnyk had brief chats on the phone last Friday with coach Cory Clouston and four veterans - Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Phillips, Jason Spezza and Mike Fisher.

"He's just trying to lend his support and say he's behind us," Spezza said Monday before facing Canadiens in Montreal. "He wants to see us win and I think he just wanted to address a few things.

"He's a fairly hands-on guy when he's around. He's not scared to come into the room and talk to us a bit. You can tell he has a passion for the game and you respect that a lot."

The calls came after a 6-3 loss to the surging Thrashers in Atlanta but did not provide a magic spark. The Senators lost a fifth straight game the following night - a 5-4 defeat in Dallas - to leave them 1-7-1 in the first nine games after the break.

The Senators did manage to put an end to that slide with a 2-0 win in Montreal on Monday.

For the owner to step in and give one-on-one pep talks to players would suggest panic on some teams, but the Senators say it was not out of character for Melnyk, the Barbados-based Canadian multi-millionaire who has been sole owner of the NHL club since 2003.

"I'm not overly surprised," added Spezza. "He's come in a few times and talked to us over the years - good, bad or indifferent.

"He likes to be around the guys when he can and I'm sure he'd be around even more if Brian would let him."

The Senators first-line centre is quick to add that an owner can address his players pretty much whenever he likes.

"Hopefully, it motivates us," he said. "He's always been committed to spending the money to give us a chance to win, and we're all in this together."

What left even Melnyk confounded by the Senators' up-and-down play this season was how hot they were before the break - 14 wins in 16 games including a team record 11-game winning run. That had Ottawa eyeing first place in the Northeast Division, while their recent woes put them back in the battle to hang onto a top-eight spot in the conference and make the playoffs.

Suddenly a team that was scoring goals, playing strong defence and getting smart goaltending from Brian Elliot was getting little in any department, particularly in goal. Both Elliot and Pascal Leclaire, who returned just before the break from injury, have struggled. In nine games after the break, they scored 16 goals and allowed 33.

It seems that, like many teams, the Senators weren't as good as they looked when they were hot and now they hope they're not as bad as they have appeared of late.

"We've struggled scoring goals, and when we've scored, the goaltending hasn't been there," said Clouston. "We had a couple of bad bounces, bad calls.

"A lot has gone into it. But it's no different than when we were winning. We had a lot of things going our way and they may have caught up with us and there might have been bit of complacency and some bad habits may have crept into our game, especially coming back from the break. But the last little while we felt we played some pretty good games."

Or, as Fisher put it: "Slumps are weird. Sometimes you're playing well at the end of a slump and you just can't find wins and then when you do (win), you win games you shouldn't. That's just the way it is."

The Senators have been doing this all season.

They started the campaign 6-2-2, then won three of their next eight. They had a four-game winning run in November followed by a 2-5-1 skid. Just before their 11-game winning run in January, they lost five in a row.

Alfredsson said all that matters is what happens from here on in.

It is a pivotal week for Ottawa. They return home to face another team they are battling for playoff position -Philadelphia. Then they're in Buffalo on Friday night and face Florida at home the following night. They finish with four of six games on the road, where they have a losing record this season.

"It's a matter of playing together as a team, sticking together and making sure you give everything you have every night," said Alfredsson. "We're at the last stretch of the season and this is the best part of the year.

"We worked hard to get where we are. Looking at the standings. We'd have liked to be higher but we're in good position. We have to try to get something going now so we go into the playoffs feeing good about our game."

They may have to do it without winger Milan Michalek. Although his leg injury suffered in Atlanta did not appear serious at first, he went for more tests Monday and Clouston said he feared it may be worse than anticipated. Results were expected later in the day.

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