Saturday, December 31, 2005

Ottawa 4 NY Islanders 3

THE GOOD:

The resilience displayed in the third period. Ottawa, traditionally a strong starting team this year, got off to an incredibly slow beginning to the game. For the first 35 or so minutes, they were on their heels and it was the New York Islanders who dictated the pace of the game and took it to the Sens. With the exception of one forward line, the Isles were winning the battles for loose pucks and were the ones taking it to their opponent. However, as the game went on, even with New York up 3-1, you could sense a change in momentum. After getting off to such an impressive start, the Isles grew scared, it seemed, and turned off the aggression that was the reason they were in the lead in the first place. Ottawa’s a team that pounces all over this, almost sensing their fear, and fought their way back into the game. It says a lot about the character of the Senators that, already minus two of their top four forwards and then without their captain and best player, they were able to get back into the game.

The Vaclav Varada-Chris Kelly-Denis Hamel line. Six weeks ago, Hamel was in Binghamton,Varada was a disgruntled fourth liner who was in the middle of all Ottawa trade rumors, and Kelly was a penalty killing specialist that saw little even strength time. So to imagine that they would be such a factor seems unlikely, I know, but last night, however, this trio was Ottawa’s best forward line. They were hard on the forecheck and were responsible for a lot of the team’s scoring chances, finishing their checks and going hard to the net consistently as well as working hard in the corners. Hamel in particular looked good out there. He’s probably the hottest player in the AHL right now, riding a six game goal scoring streak, and had more than a couple of opportunities to net a goal last night, including one glorious chance in the crease in the third period. Varada’s play along the wall was tremendous, and even though it won’t get him on the highlight shows or pad his stats, those kind of players are huge.

Bryan Smolinski. “Smoke” scored the only goal that mattered – the game winner – but even beyond that, he had another fantastic game. Smolinski continues to flourish as the top line center, something I never would’ve thought likely a month ago. I suppose he’s one of those guys who, when given the ball, rises to the occasion. Long term, I’m not sure I’d want him as my number one center, but he certainly appears to be an adequate quick fix replacement. Smolinski lead all Senators players in shots on goal, played over 20 minutes, and won a lot of key faceoffs. Looks like I need to find a new whipping boy, because he’s absolutely played his way out of my dog house.

Anton Volchenkov. It wasn’t a great night for the Ottawa blueliners, as I’ll touch on in a minute, but of the six, Volchenkov was, consistently, the best. He blocked shots, played the body, and was backchecking well.

THE BAD:

Daniel Alfredsson goes down with an injury. As I’m typing this late Friday night, the word is getting out on Alfie’s injury, and it’s not good. A cracked rib is the diagnosis, with a minimum out of week missed. Unfortunately, with this team this season, a week means a month. I’ve learned not to believe this organization’s spin about injuries. Wade Redden’s minor knee injury, which was supposed to keep him out a few days, had him on the sidelines for 10 games, Mike Fisher missed more time than he was supposed to, and we’ve now seen with Jason Spezza’s supposedly minor chest pull that there is no such thing as a minor injury with the Ottawa Senators anymore. A cracked rib sounds dangerously serious, and so who knows how long we’ll be without the Captain. Are the hockey gods mad at the Senators? Are they too cocky? Or is this a test? We’ll see I guess because this team is quite banged up and will need to pull up their socks to get through all this adversity. It doesn’t help that the organization has said they’re not spending anymore money to bring in some help, but that’s a rant for another time that will, I’m sure, come out sooner or later.

The play of the defencemen. I don’t have any explanation for it, but the six Ottawa rearguards had a terrible game. They were slow in transition and on many occasions got caught slew footed with the Islanders forward on the ice having the jump on them. As well, on two of the Isles three goals, everyone in a red sweater was standing around with their fingers up their asses watching the play rather than doing anything to clear the puck and/or take the body. And finally, their positioning in the offensive zone was brutal. It became quite common to see Ottawa win a faceoff only for the puck to slide by the Ottawa defender manning the line. In addition, many passes left the zone because they weren’t in the right spot.

The powerplay. Without Spezza and then Alfredsson, you can excuse the PP for being somewhat ineffective, but even with what they have, Ottawa had to capitalize on that extended five-on-three in the third period when the game was tied. They were being too cutesy with their play, a common theme when the PP struggles, and weren’t sending nearly enough pucks at the net, which made especially little sense considering they had a guy who’s 6’9” in front of the net screening the goalie, and likely making it very hard for him to see pucks coming towards the goal.

Ray Emery’s rebound control.Positionally, Emery is always very good, but he was kicking out juicy rebounds and losing control of loose pucks all night long. It didn't help that the D wasn't clearing pucks, mind you, but it seemed like Emery was doing his best Dominik Hasek impression, flopping around on the ice far too often. He’s still young, so he’ll have some off nights, and luckily, it wasn’t a factor in the end result.

THE OPPOSITION:

If I was a New York Islander fan, I’d be incredibly frustrated. Frustrated because the first half of the game showed they can be a competitive team if they play their game, work hard, and capitalize on chances. But also, frustrated because once again, they gave up a multi-goal lead, essentially being the architects of their own demise. Even though Ottawa elevated their game in the third, it wasn’t as if they took it to the Islanders and ripped the game out of their hands. If anything, New York handed it to them with their inability to keep their foot on the gas pedal.

A few days ago, after getting beat 6-2 by their rival, the New York Rangers, in their own building, GM Mike Milbury commented that if they continue to struggle, he’ll have no choice but to take action. I doubt last night’s meltdown did anything to quell his desire to make changes of some sort.

The obvious solution, in theory, is to trade Alexei Yashin. Easier said than done, unfortunately. Even though many Islanders fans insist he’s having a good season, I’ve yet to see Yashin play a game at anything close to the level he did when he was an elite player in Ottawa. He got benched in the third period by Steve Sterling, which will probably result in a feud between the two of some sort. Eventually, Milbury, in an effort to shake this team up, may have to chose between his coach and his captain. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that coaches rarely win in those situations. When the captain is paid $7 million, it’s even tougher for the bench boss to prevail.

There are a lot of holes on this team beyond Yashin, however. They have no leadership, and with Yashin as the captain, that’s to be expected, but few of the other veterans have stepped up (assistant captain Mark Parrish, who will be a UFA at the end of this year, talked in the media about how cool it would be to play for his homestate team, the Minnesota Wild). Their defence is terrible. Brent Sopel, who transformed himself into a tremendous third or fourth defenceman in Vancouver, had an atrocious game, giving the puck away so often it almost seemed intentional. Whatever has happened to Janne Niinimaa’s game needs to be looked into by some kind of psychologist because I’ve never seen a guy who was once a major impact player descend into mediocrity so quickly. Every game I’ve seen of the Islanders this season, I’ve been amazed at how brutal he is. As well, their forward group doesn’t have enough depth and their goaltending hasn’t been good all year long, though with that D in front of them, it’s hard to blame them too hard.

UP NEXT:

The strange post-Christmas schedule has the Senators dormant on a Saturday night, and they won’t play until Monday when they travel South to face the Atlanta Thrashers.

The Thrashers are an interesting study. They’re a club I picked to make the playoffs, yet if it started tomorrow, would be on the outside looking in. However, when you consider that they’ve been without both their number one and two goalies for most of the year, it’s hard not to sympathize. Even with all their talent up front and on the blueline, where would the Senators be if both Dominik Hasek and Ray Emery went down with serious injuries for extended periods of time? There's a lot of talent on that team and now that they have Kari Lehtonen healthy their goaltending woes could be over and they'll challenge for the franchise's first playoff birth ever.

It will be fun to see Marian Hossa again. According to those who’ve seen a lot of Atlanta this year, he’s consistently their best player night in and night out, and those of us who saw him develop into a superstar here aren’t surprised he’s in the mix as far as point leaders in the league. Of course, it would’ve been nice if he was doing it in a Sens uniform still, but Dany Heatley hasn’t been too shabby for Ottawa either. I’m sure at some point the two will match up and it’ll be exciting to see.

As well, Atlanta, with Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk, Peter Bondra, Marc Savard, Slava Kozlov, have the ability score a lot of goals, and Ottawa is the highest scoring team in the league. It could very well be a barnburner.

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