TORONTO - When Chris Neil has three points and that's a footnote, it's been a hard day's night for the Ottawa Senators.
Such was the case in a 6-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday when the focus was instead on mistakes made, pucks given away and opportunities missed. It wasn't the best of times as the Senators embarked on the final stretch before the Olympic break.
"I don't think we were horrible the whole night long," coach Paul MacLean said. "I just felt the times that we weren't really under siege, we gave pucks away. And that's just something that we haven't done that in a long time, and we have to get rid of it again."
Minutes after the game, MacLean wasn't sure how many giveaways his team finished with but remembered committing 10 after the first two periods. A total of 15, a few of which led directly to Leafs goals, overshadowed just the second three-point game of Neil's career and first since April 6, 2010.
Previously, Ottawa was 14-1-0 in games Neil registered at least a goal and an assist. But the tough guy wasn't in the mood to talk about his career night.
Rather, his focus was on what cost the Senators in Toronto.
"We had too many penalties, for sure," Neil said, pointing to seven minors that disrupted line combinations and the flow of the game. "We wanted to play a simple game. Once we got down in the third we started pushing the envelope a little too much and making mistakes we haven't been making in the last month and a half. It's tough to see those habits creep in, but (we) know we've got to get them back out."
One habit goaltender Craig Anderson would like to see his teammates break is that of leaving opposing players all alone in front of the net. Toronto's second goal came immediately after Nazem Kadri crunched rookie Senators defenceman Cody Ceci into the boards, but Anderson cared more about Joffrey Lupul getting a wide-open, uncontested shot.
"It's not even an issue if we do our assignments," Anderson said. "Lupul coming down the slot untouched, that's just a missed assignment. The Ceci controversy hit isn't even an issue if we don't forget our assignment."
MacLean took it even further, saying it wasn't just about missed assignments in front but doing the same behind the net and, of course, giving the puck away.
"Give them credit, they got it to the net quick and they counter-attacked on the stuff that we gave them, and we just have to stop giving them stuff," he said.
Even amid some sloppy play, this wasn't the same kind of bafflingly inconsistent hockey that caused the Senators to get off to such a pitiful start this season. They were seven points out of a playoff spot in early December but are now only two points back with a game in hand on the Philadelphia Flyers, who occupy the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference.
A victory over the Leafs would've allowed Ottawa to jump-frog the Flyers, but recent performances are reason enough for some confidence.
"We're a team that's been resilient as of lately," Neil said. "I think we don't get down on ourselves. We keep coming. That's why we've had success lately. I think for us we got that never-quit attitude. At the start of the year we'd get down by two and the game was over. We've turned things around that way."
Neil credited MacLean for preaching to the team about staying on the gas pedal and not letting up. That's hardly a new message coming from any coach, but MacLean won the Jack Adams Award last season, so his words carry some extra weight.
It would've been easy for MacLean and the Senators to blame no penalty being called on Kadri as the reason they lost. They acknowledged that it was certainly a shift in momentum, but there were mitigating circumstances, including Ceci saying he turned his back hoping that Kadri would slow down.
Neil absolved referee Paul Devorski — who was working his 1,500th career NHL game — of some blame because he was turning away from the area that Kadri hit Ceci.
"It was a tough play on the hit from behind," Neil said. "I think both refs don't see it, so it's tough for them to call it. They end up scoring on that play where realistically it could've been a five-minute power play for us. It's tough to swallow."
MacLean called it a "significant" play in the game. But what was more significant was his team making far too many mistakes.
"I think the whole group did," he said. "I'm not sure we can say one guy did. I thought our whole team as a group in our defensive zone, we were sloppy with the puck."
That wouldn't be a good trend to continue with games this week at the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday, at the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday, home to the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday and at the Boston Bruins on Saturday.
But as Anderson explained, the Senators did a lot of good things in a losing effort to expand on what they've built in the past couple of months.
"We've made a lot of good strides over the last, I don't know, 15, 20 games," Anderson said. "Obviously sometimes you've got to take a step backwards to take a big leap forward. So hopefully that's the case here that we can learn from it. ... If we just shore up a little bit of defensive mishaps, we're in good shape."
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