Friday, December 23, 2005

Philadelphia 4 Ottawa 3

THE GOOD:

Showing the resiliency to get back into the game. Even though they failed to net a fourth goal to tie the game, some credit has to be given to the Senators for battling back to even make a game out of it because for the first 30 or so minutes it was an incredibly one sided affair. According to those who saw the Canadiens game Tuesday night, tonight’s match-up against the Flyers was the same game turned upside down. The Flyers took it to Ottawa early and often. That first period may have been the worst 20 minutes of game play the Senators have had all season. However, to their credit, they worked hard, did the little things right that they weren’t doing for the first portion of the contest, and it paid off. So far this year, Ottawa has not been a team that has responded well to the need for adjustment. They’re great when they get up on a team (except for the Montreal game, apparently) but when down a few goals, have been very unreliable. So it was nice to see them work their way back into it. It gave me some hope even beyond this game, which, if I’m being honest, I had written off as a loss when it was 4-0.

Chris Neil. When the majority of the time was lethargic during that dreadful first period, Neil was the source of energy for the team. He was forechecking very well, finishing his checks (finished with 4, most on the Sens), and was, with the exception of Mike Fisher, the only Senators forward consistently winning battles for loose pucks along the boards early on. And that didn’t change when the rest of the team pulled their socks up and got their act together. Neil remains one of Ottawa’s most dependable skaters in that every time you put him on the ice you know what you’re going to get: a 100% work ethic and lots of jam. It’s unfortunate that he took that penalty which put the Flyers on the powerplay, which they subsequently scored on, as on that very shift he was making things happen. The call itself wasn’t great but me complaining about NHL officiating has gone beyond redundant so I’ll just leave it at that.

Antoine Vermette’s goal. Another example of a guy doing the small things right, and it paying off. He went hard to the net, something few of his teammates did up to then, and as a result, scored on a loose puck off a rebound to make it 4-2. I’ve liked Vermette’s game as of late. He’s taking the body with much more enthusiasm than previously (in the past, if he did hit, it was very much a half-assed check) and is incredibly pesty for the other team to play against. So it’s sort of annoying that Bryan Murray isn’t rewarding the youngster with more ice time. Vermette started the year on the fourth line, was open about his disappointment with this role, was promoted to the second line, and then moved back down again. His play wasn’t consistent enough to say he was a true top six forward, so I got why Murray downgraded Vermette (even though I probably would’ve been more patient and given it more time). However, he has absolutely played his way back up to a top line spot, and with Smolinski struggling to be as offensive as they need him to be on that number one line in place of the injured Jason Spezza, I don’t understand why Vermette was not given a chance. Shit, Chris Kelly played on the third line last night, ahead of Vermette. I like Kelly. He’s a good foot soldier and an excellent penalty killer. But does he have the potential to score and be an offensive presence the way Vermette does? No. Vermette scored his 7th goal of the year last night, putting him at 13 points. That’s only three less than Smolinski even though Vermette is averaging (going into the game against Philly) 2:20 less than “Smoke”, and most of that comes playing on the PK. It’s time Murray give the kid another shot to be a greater contributor on this team.

THE BAD:

The way they started the game. Yikes. For whatever reason, Ottawa was sleepwalking during those first 30 minutes and paid the price by going down 4-0. I’m not sure it they were still on an emotional low from the choke job Tuesday night, but whatever it was, it was incredibly alarming as a fan. In particular, the defence, usually the team’s backbone, was especially weak, getting pyloned on a number of plays by Philadelphia forwards. And it’s not as if Philadelphia is a particularly fast team, but boy did they get made to look like it but the sluggish play of the Ottawa rearguards. I would’ve thought that after the way they blew it Tuesday in Montreal, Ottawa would’ve come out with guns a blazing, but instead, they looked to not get the memo the game had actually started. Very disappointing.

Losing to a top team. It’s become a somewhat disheartening trend now. Ottawa fails to beat a team considered to be an elite club. It’s one thing to beat up on the Leafs 8-2. I love it, don’t get me wrong, but by now, it’s safe to assume Toronto is, at best, a middle of the pack club who, if they make it to the playoffs, will get in as one of the lower seeded teams. Beating them does little to solidify the Sens’ status as the alleged best hockey team in the NHL. Ottawa has to prove they’re the real deal by competing with and beating upper echelon organizations like the Flyers, who’ve now beaten the Sens twice this year. Ottawa has lost twice to Carolina (another top team, though they’ve cooled off) and once to Dallas, Vancouver, and Calgary. It seems like when playing the Senators, other teams want to prove they belong in the elite class of the league and so they elevate their games. The Senators need to be aware that because of the way they started the season, they’ve in essence put targets on their backs, and everyone they play wants to be able to say they knocked off the team most everyone calls the best. Ottawa needs to match those elevated games with their own, because when a team like Philly or Dallas has that extra motivation that you don’t, they can and will beat you, regardless of how much media hype you have.

Bryan Smolinski’s finish. At least he’s getting scoring chances, but if Bryan Smolinski is going to be the number one center on this team when Jason Spezza goes down (and apparently, that’s now often) he needs to capitalize on those opportunities. The obvious answer, of course, is that he’s not a number one center, and probably not even a number two at this point. This puts the Senators in a bad spot. I plan to talk about it more tomorrow, but suffice to say, it’s becoming a concern.

Brian McGratton’s eagerness to fight Donald Brashear. At this point in the game the Sens were down 2-0 and were getting their asses handed to them by the Flyers, so I imagine McGratton wanted to get his team going by taking on a guy who many consider to be one of the toughest heavyweights in the NHL. Not a bad idea. Maybe it would have even given them some spark or momentum. That’s one of the jobs of an enforcer. Fine. But when Brashear showed no interested not once but twice, skating away from McGratton after he made it obvious what his intentions were, “Gratts” should’ve taken that as a sign and moved on with his play. He didn’t. Instead, he continued to try and goad Brash into a scrap, essentially skating around him ignoring the play. Philadelphia got some shots, and there was a loose puck that he could’ve cleared at the side of the net. However, his mind had been so out of it that he wasn’t able to get his head in the right place to make the play. A Flyers forward sweeped in, stabbed at the loose puck, and the red light was on yet again. It’s unfair to lay the blame for that goal solely at the feet of McGratton, as there were a few other Sens players (I’m looking at you Brian Pothier) whose defensive zone coverage was not adequate, but these kind of things are the reasons teams don’t give enforcers a lot of ice time.

Up to this point this year, I have to say, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with McGratton and his role on the team. The best compliment you can lay to a true tough guy is that he doesn’t hurt his team. McGratton had not. He’s a decent skater with pretty good acceleration for a guy his size. And he never fails to take the body. Obviously, he’s not there to score goals, or even generate changes, but simply to be a deterrent to anyone who thinks they can play dirty with the Senators. With McGratton, a nuclear weapon on the bench, around, it’s unlikely teams will think they can mess around and not pay some consequences. But he has to be smarter about it. Last night was not smart. It was a horrible mental error and it cannot happen again if he wants to get the coaching staff’s confidence and maybe become something more than merely a guy who drops the gloves. All he has to do is look at the progression of Chris Neil’s career, and how that one-time enforcer of sorts has become an integral part of the team in ways that have nothing to do with fighting, to see it’s possible.

THE OPPOSITION:

Few teams this season have been as ravaged by the injury bug as the Philadelphia Flyers, as they’ve missed something like 120 man games already, but they still have enough juice to be a dangerous team on any given night.

A lot of the reason the Flyers were able to fend off the Senators attack in the third period, when the momentum had shifted and it was Ottawa controlling the pace and taking it to Philly, was because of the stellar play of rookie netminder Antero Nittymaki. I must admit to not knowing too much about him before the game, and only that he backstopepd the Philadelphia Phantoms (the Flyers’ AHL affiliate) to the championship last year and that he had stepped in this season for the injured Robert Esche and performed admirably. I did read some Finnish hockey fans earlier in the day who were upset that he was left off their Olympic squad. After this game, I understood why. He made a number of monster saves, including a few on Smolinski early on that changed the face of the game, as well as one in the third on a Peter Schaefer breakaway.

This is now two times this year that a Philly goalie has stonewalled the Senators, as Esche did it in their win earlier in the season. For a team who supposedly has goaltending issues, the Flyers sure seem to bring it in that regard against Ottawa.

Up front, you could see the electricity of the Simon Gagne-Peter Forsberg-Mike Knuble, who, if healthy for the whole year, probably could’ve had a case made for them as the league’s best line along with the Three Kings and our own Big Line. It was Gagne’s first game back in a few, but he didn’t look a step slow, and this trio was easily the Flyers most productive from start to finish, generating 10 of the team’s 30 shots. That number is somewhat deceiving, because Forsberg only had one, yet was a much bigger factor in the game than that. On a lot of shift, he looked like the old, dominant Forsberg that we’ve come to hate when he’s playing against our favorite team.

UP NEXT:

Previously this year, Ottawa responded well when losing, so I’d say the fact they have a game tomorrow against the New York Islanders is a good thing because it’ll give them a change to get back on their horse. However, after the terrible way they played in the first period, I’m somewhat fearful of a repeat performance coming off another L. Hopefully though, they’ll use the momentum they had in the second half of last night’s game and carry it into Long Island to beat the Alexei Yashin led (there’s an oxymoron for you) squad.

It’s believed Ray Emery will get the nod in nets as they don’t like to play Dominik Hasek in back-to-back games. Emery is too coming off a loss of his own, the first of his NHL career, and he’s an incredibly competitive guy, so you don’t have to worry about his motivation, as I’m quite confident it’ll be there in spades.

Murray could shake things up and decide to go with Hasek though (assuming Hasek wants to play again, which is possible because he too is ultra spirited).

Jason Spezza was on the TV broadcast in the third period and said he plans to take tomorrow’s morning skate (as he did today) and decide how he feels. Let’s hope the verdict is better because they desperately need him back. Please Jason, save us from the atrocity that is Bryan Smolinski as our top line center!

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