Cup remains Senators' hardest question

Jacques Martin hasn't managed to survive as the longest tenured coach (with the same team) in the National Hockey League today without having a very good radar screen.

So when a question -- subtle but dangerous -- came out of the pack regarding his goaltending, Martin was quick to move it out of harm's way.

"Patrick (goaltender Patrick Lalime) struggled a bit earlier in the season, but that hasn't been the case for a long time now," Martin said about whether or not goaltending might be a team weakness.

"All the great ones struggle from time to time. Look at Patrick Roy; the years he won Stanley Cups weren't always the years he put up his best numbers."

Martin has a lot of answers like that.

Ask him about the bad shake his team got from the schedule makers (13 of their last 17 games starting with Wednesday's 4-3 loss in Buffalo are on the road), and he talks about balance and how every team has to play 41 at home and 41 on the road.

Press him about the disadvantage road teams have regarding the last line change, and he'll tell you about how he rolls four lines so that matching isn't a problem home or away.

Mention how his team appears to have shed its image as a defensive-minded club, and he's quick to point out that the great teams score and defend with equal ability.

Put another way, Martin has a pat and positive answer for every tough question. Distractions, inventions and excuses are not things by which he is going to abide.

And why should he? His team might not defend the President's Cup, but it could. The Senators may not win the goal-scoring crown, but they have a chance. They might not finish with the game's best power-play numbers, but they are on track to do so.

Not bad for a team with a defensive-minded reputation that could, for the record, also finish with the league's lowest goals against total.

Simply put, the Senators are good -- very good -- and while they still might have a reputation as a team that simply checks opponents to death, the truth is the club now plays a powerful yet finely tuned offensive game. It's just difficult to get anyone to really admit it.

"They're a different team than the one I joined last year," said Rob Ray, who was a late-season pick up for the Senators last season and rejoined the team out of retirement this time around.

"They seem to be a more confident bunch, and they seem to have grown from that loss last time."

Are they more offensive-minded than the one you remember?

"Well, yes and no," Ray replied. "They do have guys who can take it and go, but you have to play the other end. I don't think Jacques will let anyone get too far away from that."

One gets a sense it's part of Ottawa's growing process. The Senators are still burdened by their seventh-game defeat at the hands of the New Jersey Devils, in Ottawa, in the Eastern Conference final last spring.

They don't talk much about it, but it can never be completely erased. Had they won that game, it's almost a given that the Senators would have gone on to win the Cup. New Jersey did, and you could argue that the Sens played defense every bit as well as the Devils last season and had a much better offense.

That's why last season's prize, the Presidents' Cup, and the other baubles that come with regular-season success don't seem to be much of an issue for this team.

The goal this season appears to be nothing less than the Cup. It's a quest that likely will be the only way the Senators can satisfy both their critics and their own little smidgen of doubt that comes when you don't fully meet expectations whether they are your own or someone else's.

The mood among the Senators and the people who direct them suggests they have one goal -- to be playing their absolute best come playoff time.

"A team has to sometimes suffer disappointments in order to grow and get better," says general manager John Muckler, who watched a young and talented group of Edmonton Oiler players evolve into an elite team in the 1980s. "I truly believe that team had to suffer some setbacks before it learned the price that needed to be paid to become a champion."

Muckler likely hasn't finished tinkering with his team. He already picked up Peter Bondra from the Washington Capitals to add to what was already a highly productive offense and a fearsome power play, but there are rumors about that he's still searching for a bit more grit, a defensive-minded forward, and perhaps some reserve strength on defense. Still, even if he does nothing before the March 9 trade deadline, the essence of the team is set -- and it's a good one.

The Senators may give up a few more goals than in the past, but those are more than offset by their ability to score them, almost at will.

Only the playoffs can determine whether or not that will be enough.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.