OTTAWA - The Ottawa Senators appear to have cooled off during the Olympic break and their recent performance has made goaltending a hot topic of discussion in the Canadian capital once again.
The Senators, who won 14-of-16 games prior to the Olympics, returned with consecutive losses and have now dropped three of their past four games. But it's the most-recent defeat that has fans and the media talking.
On Thursday night, goaltender Pascal Leclaire lasted less than seven minutes in a 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes - the second time this week the starter has failed to finish the contest. That's once again raising concerns over Ottawa's quality at that position as the Senators head down the stretch and into the playoffs with Leclaire and Brian Elliott coming under fire for their recent performances.
The Senators face the Toronto Maple Leafs at home Saturday night. But on Friday, coach Cory Clouston defended his decision to pull Leclaire, who's had a forgettable season since being brought to Ottawa to fill the No. 1 role, just six minutes 23 seconds into his first start since Jan. 12.
"The team needed a shakeup and, unfortunately, that meant Pascal had to get yanked to try and get that shakeup," Clouston said. "Right now all the questions are more focused on whether I took him out to too early as opposed to leaving him in there.
"Right now, the pressure's on my shoulders instead of his and you're asking questions pertaining to me instead of him and that's good. He's still a good goalie, we believe in him and he'll get through this."
Clouston isn't blaming the play of his goaltenders for the downturn in the Senators' fortunes. He said the team's lacked urgency since returning from the break and their attention to detail has gone missing.
"We built a little bit of a cushion there and it seems we kind of relaxed and we can't," Clouston said. "We've got to make sure that we keep pushing hard."
But after being forced to pull his starter in both previous games this week, he's stirred up a familiar debate in Ottawa.
When asked about the two goals Leclaire allowed on five Carolina shots, Clouston described them as "the (saves) that we need our goaltenders to make, otherwise he wouldn't have been pulled."
It was the solid play of Elliott during the Senators' hot streak that pushed the oft-injured Leclaire into a backup role. But when Elliott didn't look good in any of Ottawa's four games leading up to Thursday, that prompted the start for Leclaire, who said his quick outing "was a little frustrating."
After he was pulled, he glared back at the Senators' bench on his way off the ice in Carolina, but said he was OK with the move Friday.
"What's done is done," he said. "The more I play, the more I get into my groove and I don't think it I was bad last night.
"To me, if I start thinking too much and trying to find problems where there are no problems, I'm only going to get in trouble, so I'm going to try to forget about it.
"I respect the decision. (Clouston) did the move that he thought was better for the team and I want what's best for the team."
Clouston wouldn't name his starter against Toronto and the Senators could be forced to shuffle their lineup further. Defenceman Filip Kuba is expected to sit out his second straight game with a lower-body injury and Jesse Winchester, Ryan Shannon, Peter Regin and Jarkko Ruutu all missing practice, the latter three because of the flu.
Whoever does get the call in goal just needs a better effort from those in front of him, said centre Jason Spezza.
"We've just got to play with a little bit more urgency and just get back on track. Things aren't always as bad as they look," Spezza said. "It's not time to panic - two losses - make whatever you want out of it, but we've still got a lot of hockey left."