Monday, September 26, 2005

And The Ship Sails On

Ottawa 7 Toronto 4

The Ottawa Senators stay undefeated with their win over the Leafs tonight in front of a sold out Corel Centre. They’ve now outscored their opponents 21-8 in the four pre-season games. To put it simply, they look like they’re on their A game. This is not to say they look completely polished, but as a team, it appears as if they've already got their act together.

Even with it being a pre-season match-up, the game was still very intense, which only served to verify my opinion that the Battle Of Ontario is the best rivalry in the NHL. There were a ton of hits, a whole lotta scrappy play in the corners, and three fights. It looked more like a game in March than September.

The line of Brandon Bochenski-Jason Spezza-Dany Heatley remains red hot, which likely goes without saying considering they accounted for five of the team’s seven goals. Bochenski had a hat trick less than three minutes into the third, and even on shifts where they didn’t score a goal, the line was noticeable for the chances they generated. This was my first chance to see the line myself, and I was not underwhelmed. I was interested to see Bochenski, and he looked very good, besides his three goals. The knock on him has always been his skating and defensive play, but, based only on tonight’s contest, it didn’t look like either was an issue. The part of his game I was especially pleased with was the fact he’s always going to the net. That’s been something missing on this team for a while, and he looks to have no fear. He’s not a big guy, at all, but never got pushed around either.

Captain Daniel Alfredsson reportedly had a monster game the night before in Pittsburgh, especially on the PK, but he was not all that strong against the Leafs. He scored a goal, yes, but it was basically an early Christmas present to the captain, as the puck took a crazy bounce off the boards on a dump in. I could've scored that one. The line he's been playing with, consisting of himself at RW, Bryan Smolinski at center, and Martin Havlat playing out of position on the left side, has not been as dazzling as the younger line of Bochenski-Spezza-Heatley. Not bad by any means, but also not as impressive as they could and should be. Let's hope they get that cleared up in time for the season opener on October 5th.

Andrej Meszaros continues to impress. This was the first pre-season game I saw him play and he did not disappoint either. Because of Chris Phillips sitting out due to playing back-to-back games against the Penguins, there was a spot open beside Zdeno Chara on the top defensive pairing, and Meszaros was plunked into the role for most of the game. The 19-year-old rose the occasion. He was strong in both ends of the ice, displaying his booming shot often (including on the powerplay, where he also played alongside Chara), and in his own end, delivered several booming hits. Christoph Schubert, the blueliner he’s battling for that sixth defenceman job, was in the line-up as well but unlike #38, did not make much of an impression. To his defense, he did not get nearly the amount of ice time Meszaros, but that might be an indication of how the coaching staff views him.

Sticking with the defencemen, I was also high on Anton Volchenkov’s play. The word from those who saw the other pre-season games the Sens played was that the “A-Train” was having a hard time. It wasn’t sure it was due to rust or if he was having a hard time adjusting to the rules changing, but whatever it was, he was said to have struggled, spending a lot of time in the box. Tonight, we saw the Volchenkov of old. He must have thrown half a dozen huge bodychecks, at least.

Between the pipes for Ottawa, Dominik Hasek did not play the entire game as I thought he might. He didn’t face a lot of shots, and despite giving up two goals, few good scoring chances, so tonight’s game might not have been the best way to measure if he’s ready. Ray Emery was in the nets for the other half, and by then the Leafs had been playing a little better, so he was forced to play a better game. He looked sharp, crisp.

For the Leafs, though it was only an exhibition game, and ultimately means nothing, there were many things that should make Leafs Nation a little concerned.

Starting in net, despite starting poorly, Mikael Tellqvist got better as the game went on, and was especially strong in the third period, stopping a few breakaways. Talking to a Leafs fan, apparently the other goalies still with the team, Jean-Sebastien Aubin and Jean-Francois Racine, have outclassed the Swede in previous games, so he likely had to have a good game in order to fend of those two. He succeeded in that sense.

Their defence looked very slow for most of the game. Whether or not that can be chalked up to playing two games in as many nights, who knows, but they did not look good. Bryan McCabe stood out, though not in the way Leafs fans would like. There had been a lot of speculation about how McCabe, who’s been known for using his stick to impede opposing forwards in the past, would adjust to the new rules. If tonight was a glimpse into how he’ll fare this season, Leafs fans should be nervous. It’s not as if their defence is particularly strong as it is, and if their number one guy is outdated in this new world, then the team is in for a long season.

Up front, the team sat some of their forward core, among them Eric Lindros, Jeff O’Neill, and Jason Allison (giving Leafs fans an excuse, of course), but most who did suit up did not astound me. Their top line of Alexander Ponikarovsky-Mats Sundin-Nik Antropov looked down right atrocious, invisible most of the night and negative when they were noticeable. Tie Domi played on the second line, and even though he had a goal, was also pretty much ghost the whole night.

Oh, and memo to Darcy Tucker: if you get hit, clean, and are hurt, left laying on the ice, perhaps it’s not a good idea to run and find the guy who hit you for a fight, because you’ll likely get beat up. I would think this would be obvious, but apparently, Sideshow Bob isn’t that quick. Mike Fisher made the Leaf You Love To Hate look foolish not once but twice, but of course, that didn’t stop Tucker from chirping once in the box. But at least Tucker looked like he was making an effort, which can’t be said for a few of the other players the Leafs will depend on significantly this season.

Another player who I thought worked hard, and was making his presence felt, was rookie Kyle Wellwood. He only registered one point, an assist, but he was always out there doing something. With a bunch of other players ahead of him on the depth chart (he’s a natural center, and apparently number six on the team’s hierarchy according to the Hockey News breakdown), it’s doubtful he’ll start the year in T.O., but he looks like someone who’s capable of stepping in if there is an injury or if someone ahead of him is playing poorly.

A player I tried to keep an especially keen eye on was another rookie, Alexander Steen. He was the best player on either team in the rookie tournament game I saw between the Sens and the Leafs, so like with Patrick Eaves for Ottawa, I was interested to see how he did with the NHLers. While he didn’t have a bad game, he also didn’t do much to make me notice him either, and I suspect if I had not been looking for him on the ice, I would’ve missed him for most of the night. He was playing on a line with Matt Stajan and Steve Thomas. Thomas was busting his ass out there, but frankly, looked his age. He just didn’t look like he was able to keep up. I’d be shocked if he gets a contract.

Far and away, the most common topic thus far this pre-season has been the rise in penalties due to the new crackdown on obstruction. I was curious to see it for myself. For the most part, it was not as bad as I’d been led to believe. The Sens took nine penalties to the Leafs five. It did interrupt the flow of the game somewhat, but by the third period, the best period of hockey, it seemed like the players had adjusted accordingly.

One theory out there, and I’m not sure how much water it holds but it’s worth mentioning, is that the referees are overdoing it with the penalties this pre-season in order to drive the point home that it’s a new era.

People have also complained that the abundance of penalties would make games longer. The league has taken great measures to speed up the game over the last couple years, so that school of thought said the new edict was in contrast to their previous efforts. However, tonight’s game was less than 2 and a half hours, which was, roughly, the length for most games I attended last season. Meaning, it had no real impact one way or another.

After playing back-to-back-to-back games, in three different cities no less, the Senators will have a bit of a break, not playing again until Wednesday night when they travel to Buffalo to face the Sabres. It will be interesting to see if Hasek plays against his old team, and if so, how he fares.

I was surprised to learn tonight’s game was on local TV on Rogers 22. Because I was there, I can’t say how it was, but if it was the same crew that works the 67’s games for the station, you’d have been better off turning the sound down and putting the radio broadcast on as your audio. One other pre-season contest, the home game against the Pens on Thursday, will also apparently be televised, this time on Sportsnet. Just a heads up because I haven’t really seen much about it.


At 9:43 AM, Blogger Andrew said...

I watched the game on TV, and the announcrs weren't all that bad.... although they got more excited for LEafs goals than for Sens goals.

One thing I found promising was that I noticed a lot of players checking themselves as they were about to impede another player... you could see them about to habitually commit an infraction, and then pull themselves back from the brink.


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