MONTREAL -- Collars are starting to get a little tighter in the Ottawa Senators' dressing room these days -- their surprise, feel-good season is in danger of slipping away with just two points separating them from falling out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
But coach Paul MacLean doesn't necessarily feel that's a bad thing for his team, as long as the Senators figure out a way to use it to their advantage.
They'd better do it quickly.
"Pressure's a wonderful thing," MacLean said after the Senators lost 5-1 to the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night to stretch their losing streak to three games. "You can find out a lot about yourself and about your team, and how hard it is in the League. For some reason we feel we have that on us and we have to find a way to handle it or channel it into the right spots."
Craig Anderson started his first game since Feb. 22 and allowed goals on the first and fourth shots he faced. Erik Cole scored a natural hat trick just 5:41 after the opening faceoff, cementing a damaging Canadiens win very early on.
MacLean pulled Anderson after Cole's second goal and inserted Ben Bishop, who had helped Ottawa weather the injury to their No. 1 goalie by going 3-2-2 with a 1.96 goals-against average and .925 save percentage in seven starts in Anderson's absence. But Bishop did not fare much better, allowing goals on the fourth and sixth shots he faced to spot the Canadiens an early 4-0 lead they would not relinquish.
"It was everybody," said center Jason Spezza, who scored Ottawa's lone goal. "We weren't focused enough or good enough."
Anderson returned to start the second period and allowed one more goal to finish his comeback game with 20 saves for the Senators (37-28-10), who have just one win in six games.
The Senators' slide has put them in serious danger of slipping into eighth in the East, or even falling out of playoff position altogether.
The Buffalo Sabres, currently in ninth, beat the Rangers in New York 4-1 while the eighth-place Washington Capitals lost 4-3 in overtime to the 10th-place Winnipeg Jets on Friday night. That puts both the Capitals and Sabres just two points behind the Senators, who face the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins at home Saturday, travel to Winnipeg for a tough road game against the Jets on Monday and then get a four-day break before going to Philadelphia to face the Flyers next Saturday.
Back-to-backs can be grueling at this time of year, but MacLean was glad his team will be back on the ice quickly.
"The best thing about tonight is we get to play again tomorrow, we get the opportunity to respond to a poor effort by the whole group," MacLean said. "We're playing a good team tomorrow night that's playing real well and that should scare us enough to make sure we're ready to play."
The Senators, Capitals and Sabres all have seven games remaining on the schedule -- but while the Caps and Sabres are surging, the Sens are clearly slipping at the worst possible time.
"The rest of the stretch, they're all pretty much playoff games," Spezza said. "Teams are chasing us and getting wins and we're not right now. So they're all must win."
Cole's hat trick allowed him to match a career high with 30 goals, a milestone that has a lot of significance for the Canadiens (29-33-13). Cole and Max Pacioretty become the first pair of Canadiens players to hit the 30-goal plateau in the same season since 1995-96, when Vincent Damphousse and Pierre Turgeon scored 38 goals apiece.
The Canadiens never had an American-born player score 30 goals in a season in their 102-year history before Pacioretty – a native of New Canaan, Conn.– hit the milestone March 8 in Edmonton. Less than two weeks later, the Canadiens have two with Oswego, N.Y., native Cole joining the club.
Across the League, this marks the first time since 2005-06 that two American-born teammates have reached the 30-goal mark -- the last ones were current Canadiens Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, then with the New Jersey Devils. The Sabres did have Chris Drury and Jason Pominville reach 30 goals in 2006-07, but while Pominville holds dual citizenship, he was born in Repentigny, Que.
Petteri Nokelainen and Lars Eller scored Montreal's other goals while Carey Price ensured the Senators were unable to mount a comeback after Spezza's goal late in the first period by making 37 saves.
For a team that has blown many leads this season, especially at home, it was a relief to hang on. Cole gave a lot of the credit for that to Price.
"Tonight it could have gone that way again had it not been for Carey," Cole said. "He made some real timely saves for us in the second period and we got some good penalty kills from the guys to keep it at 4-1. If it gets to that 4-2 mark and they start feeling it a little bit, who knows what will happen."
Cole got his natural hat trick in a span of 5:12. He scored on a wrist shot that bounced in off Anderson's glove just 29 seconds after the opening faceoff, again on a rebound of a P.K. Subban shot at 4:56 and completed it off Bishop at 5:41 on another rebound of a Subban shot.
Cole's hat trick was the quickest in Canadiens' history from the start of a game, but it was nowhere near the franchise record for the quickest hat trick -- or even the quickest natural hat trick. That mark belongs to Jean Beliveau, who scored three times in 44 seconds during a single 5-on-3 power play on Nov. 5, 1955, a performance that ultimately led the NHL to change its rules so that a penalized player can return to the ice once the team with the man advantage scores.
However, Cole was not the least bit impressed with his hat trick, or his team record or matching a career high in goals one season after his former team, the Carolina Hurricanes, suggested to him that he was on the decline before he left to sign as a free agent with the Habs.
"I'm not overly concerned with what everyone thinks I'm capable of. I know what I'm capable of," he said. "But when you factor in the frustration of the season, it's tough to look past that."
Less than three minutes after Cole's third goal, Nokelainen beat Bishop with a wrist shot while on a 2-on-1 break, giving Montreal four goals on 10 shots.
The quick, lopsided score made the game a rough one, with two fights and a litany of post-whistle scrums. Ottawa's Chris Neil alone had 33 minutes in penalties with two misconducts, a fighting major and four roughing minors. In all, the Senators (92) and Canadiens (52) combined for 144 penalty minutes.
"Any game where you get a lead like that it can easily slip into a game like that, which it did tonight," said Canadiens enforcer Brad Staubitz, who fought Zenon Konopka at 2:06 of the first. "I thought we dealt with it pretty well and stuck together."
Spezza scored with just 12.3 seconds to play in the first to make it 4-1 after a tremendous effort by Milan Michalek, who held off Alexei Emelin to one-hand a pass in front for Spezza for his 30th of the season.
Eller made it 5-1 with a power play goal at 5:05 of the third. Montreal's goal total fell one short of the six goals it had scored in its previous four games.