OTTAWA - The Ottawa Senators are stuck in their longest winless rut in more than a year and their defensive play is shouldering much of the blame.
So word Friday that Anton Volchenkov would miss a month with a broken right index finger came as a big blow. The Russian blue-liner has been the struggling team's best defensive player.
"It's not a good situation," Chris Phillips, Volchenkov's defensive partner, said following practice. "He's been big for us - blocking shots and penalty killing.
"Things are going to change a little bit here and we'll deal with it, but it's certainly a tough blow for the team."
The 25-year-old was hurt during Ottawa's 6-5 loss to the Nashville Predators on Thursday night - the Senators' fifth straight defeat - and coach John Paddock said Volchenkov is expected to be out for about four weeks.
The Moscow native, who broke the same finger in Russia a few years ago, was blocking a shot from J.P. Dumont while killing a penalty in the game's opening minute.
The puck bounced off Volchenkov and led to an easy goal for Nashville's Dan Hamhuis. It also threw a wrench into Ottawa's plans to get out of its funk.
"I knew right away (it was broken)," Volchenkov said. "It's a pretty bad injury. It's a pretty tough time for it to happen."
For now utilityman Christoph Schubert, who often flips between forward and defence, will take Volchenkov's spot and, as Paddock said, "that's some big shoes to fill."
"My mindset is to just keep it simple the first couple of shifts and see how the game goes, but I'm not putting too much pressure on myself," Schubert said. "I have confidence in myself that I can do the job."
Volchenkov is averaging more than 20 minutes of ice-time per game and he and Phillips make up the Senators' top shutdown defensive pairing.
Volchenkov is also one of Ottawa's top penalty killers, its most punishing hitter on the blue-line, and he's even more fearless in front of the puck, where he's proven to be a goalie's best friend.
"Especially at the end of the game," said Senators netminder Martin Gerber, who will get the start Saturday when Ottawa tries to stop its skid against the visiting New York Rangers. "He's a guy that gets in front of those pucks and you always miss a guy like that."
Volchenkov led the NHL in blocked shots last season and was leading the league again this year with 96 blocks heading into Friday's action.
"I don't think you can tell anybody to play that way," Gerber said. "Sometimes it scares me. It's like suicide watch out there. But that's the way he plays. He's really good at it and he's one of a kind."
Volchenkov's bad break is just another in a line of cracks that are beginning to show in the Senators' armour from the goaltending out.
Since starting the season with 15 wins in their first 17 games, the Senators have lost six of their past seven and haven't won since Nov. 19. The last time they'd gone five games without a win was from Oct. 28 to Nov. 8, 2006, during last season's poor start to the campaign.
They've allowed 23 goals against in the last five games - the same number they allowed in winning 10 of their first 11 - and after giving up five goals in a game just once through the first 20 contests, have given up six to an opponent in two of the past four outings.
"We're scoring enough goals, we just have to do a better job on the defensive side of the game, not making careless mistakes," Phillips said.
"It's no fun losing, that's for sure, but we're trying to stay positive. We put ourselves in a great position early on in the season when we look in the standings right now
"But at the same time, we can't just sit on that and take that for granted. We have to make some changes and play a little bit different and a little bit smarter and hopefully get this thing turned around."
On Thursday night against the Predators, Ottawa battled back from at least a goal down on four occasions and tied the game with 45.5 seconds to play, but still managed to lose when Martin Erat scored with 22.2 seconds remaining in regulation.
"There was a general frustration you could sense in the (dressing) room after the game," centre Jason Spezza said. "We did a lot of things right, we did a lot of things wrong still."
The losing slide has also re-ignited the local debate over the Senators' goaltending situation.
Gerber is quickly beginning to lose the support of fans he'd won over with his strong start to the season and last year's starter, Ray Emery, also hasn't gained much favour in the few outings he's had this season.
Paddock said Ottawa's troubles can be found in more than just the crease. Among them, he blames poor work in the neutral zone and poor coverage in the Senators' own end.
"I think it's like the rest of our team," he said. "When you're allowing this many goals, it's not one person's fault or one area of the game. There's a lot of things wrong with our team. There's a lot of people messing up."