Monday, October 31, 2005

Bo no longer knows Ottawa

This is probably not a Halloween Brandon Bochenski will want to remember. As many expected, the Ottawa Senators demoted the rookie right winger to the Binghamton Senators this morning.

With Martin Havlat coming off his suspension, the Sens had to make a roster move of some kind, and Bochenski was the logical choice. Despite tearing it up in the pre-season, Bo has yet to be an effective scorer since the regular season started, scoring only one goal in the 10 games he’s played.

One goal from a rookie might not be bad, but when you consider he’s playing on their top line with Dany Heatley on the left side and Jason Spezza at center, both of whom are in the top 5 in NHL scoring, that kind of a slump simply can’t be justified. Bochenski was put on the line because he’s a goal scorer - or at least, that’s how he was billed to us -, having scored over 30 goals in his first year of pro hockey last year in Bingo, leading all AHL rookies. As well, he played with Spezza, who led the league in scoring that year, for most of the season, leading one to assume they had some kind of chemistry that would translate in the NHL.

It hasn’t. Instead, Heatley and Spezza have developed that one-two punch combo while Bochenski has mostly stood around watching. He’s had some decent games where he has chances generated from going to the net, and it looked like he was on the verge of turning the corner, but for the most part, he’s been an anchor on the line.

The problem with Bochenski is that besides his offense, there’s little else to his game. He’s not a particularly strong skater or checker, doesn’t win faceoffs, and can’t kill penalties. If he’s not scoring, he’s not contributing much to the team. Thus, it made the most sense that if they had to send one player down, it would be him. Some have pointed to Chris Kelly as another option, but I think, in his role, Kelly has been very effective. Because he’s the fourth line center, Kelly doesn’t get a whole lot of ice time, but he always makes the most of what he’s given. He backchecks hard, is strong on the forecheck, wins most of his faceoffs (a problem for this team last season), is a force on the PK, and despite his young age (24), is a leader. He spent the previous two years as captain down in Bingo, so you know he’s got good character. It made no sense to send him back down because he has to clear waivers, and though he’s a fourth line center on Ottawa, on some less talented teams, he might be someone they can utilize full-time, and therefore, they’d lose him for nothing.

John Muckler was on The Team 1200 today and chalked up Bochenski’s inability to be a contributor to his inexperience and lack of mental toughness. It takes a certain level of maturity to be an NHLer, and Muckler all but said Bo doesn’t have it yet.

This doesn’t mean they’ve washed their hands of him though. He’ll likely be at the top of their list of call-ups when an injury occurs (or whenever the next time Havlat decides to kick a guy in the balls). Because he doesn’t have to clear waivers, Bochenski, like fellow rookie Patrick Eaves, is the ideal guy to bring up in an emergency. In the meantime, he’ll join a struggling Binghamton team that is at the literal bottom of the AHL standings, having won only one game in seven outings. Whether or not Bochenski is enough to turn it around remains to be seen, but adding a guy who’s proven he can score at that level can’t hurt.

Who to put with the red hot Heatley and Spezza combo remains a good question. The obvious solution is to place captain Daniel Alfredsson on the top line. When Bochenski struggled, coach Bryan Murray would sometimes take him off the line and put Alfie in his place. The results were fireworks, as the new line scored both of the goals in the season opener against Toronto, allowing the team to win. The three seemed to work well together and it didn’t appear as if it was forced. In addition, Alfredsson brings a veteran presence to the line, and unlike Spezza and Heatley, is a excellent defensive forward, thereby

The downside in putting #11 on the line is that you’re essentially stacking the line-up and creating one superpower line. While this can often be good, resulting in a lot of offense from the combo, it also allows your opponents to concentrate solely on that one line if they want to shut you down (see Vancouver). It might make more sense to distribute the scoring over two lines, which would mean keeping Alfredsson on the second line with Smolinski and Mike Fisher, a line that struggled Thursday against Montreal but rebounded to have an excellent night versus Toronto two days later.

That would then bring up Martin Havlat. Havlat started the year on the left side with Alfresson and Bryan Smolinski, but he found playing out of position difficult and requested a move back to his natural right wing spot, even though it meant moving down a line. Havlat has played with Spezza before and the two had good chemistry. He’s certainly more explosive than Alfredsson is and is likely more of a offensive threat. But he’s not a shooter. He likes to make plays, often by himself, and so that might create some problems if Spezza is trying to distribute the puck for goals.

Either way, this is a good problem to have, having to choose which 30 goal scorer you want on your top line. I’m sure most teams wish they had to deal with this dilemma.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Philadelphia 5 Ottawa 3

Thanks to the wonderful reality of no TV carrying the game (I felt your pain, Flames fans), I can’t offer any first hand insight on the game, having had to rely on radio for my information.

Based on their descriptions, it was just one of those games. They didn’t have the same jump 24 hours earlier in Toronto, but were also without the bounces that made that game so easy for Ottawa. Finishing with 42 shots on goal, they clearly had the chances, but while everything was going in on Saturday night at the ACC, very little was once they got back home tonight.

One positive to take out of the game is that they finally got some offense out of their blueline. Zdeno Chara scored two goals (and played over 31 minutes) while Wade Redden contributed the other. They'll need more of this as the season progresses.

I do have to question the wisdom in playing Dominik Hasek in back-to-back games. Yes, he’s started the year looking very sharp, and statistically, has been among the league’s best, but he’s still 40-years-old, and that has to be remembered sometimes. I’m not sure Ray Emery would’ve fared much better, but at least it would’ve given Hasek some rest.

Discipline also appeared to be an issue for the Senators. They took 11 penalties, which is far too many against a team that can throw out Peter Forsberg, Simon Gagne, Kim Johnsson et al for a powerplay. Ottawa’s PK has been excellent this year, but not so good that they can afford to get sloppy like that. A few of the penalties sounded as if they were of the questionable variety, but it also seemed like some were just a result of laziness o the Sens part. Daniel Alfredsson took a hooking penalty with less than seven minutes left in the game after the Sens had just gone up on the powerplay. Down by two goals, and with some momentum on their side having just cut into that lead by a goal, the captain should know better. He came into the game with 0 PIMs, but by the end of the night had 6.

For Philadelphia, this win has to give them some confidence after a rough stretch. Back-to-back games or not, coming into Ottawa and winning is not an easy feat so they deserve recognition for it. A lot has been made about Robert Esche and his status as the team’s perceived achille’s heel, but based on all accounts, he had a solid game. After all, he did make 40 saves, including 20 in the third (a goalie stonewalling the Sens in the third period under a flurry of shots, where have I seen this before?). I’ve never ever been impressed with Esche and whenever I watch him play, I can’t help but think he’s inept due to the bad positioning, juicy rebounds, and affinity to give up bad goals, but if he has games like this, the Flyers will be alright.

UP NEXT:

After two pretty big games, the team actually has the day off tomorrow. They’ll practice on Tuesday before heading to Buffalo to face the Sabres, a team they handled with relative ease a few Saturday nights ago. So you know they’ll be looking for revenge. Even though the Sabres are probably out of the Sens’ league as far as talent goes, they’re still a quick, dangerous team that can roll four solid lines and be explosive, so they can’t be taken lightly.

Ottawa 8 Toronto 0

THE GOOD:

Total domination.
The Senators beat the Maple Leafs 8-0. What else needs to be said?

Dany Heatley’s four straight goals. Talk about a dominating effort. And the Thrashers lost again. Hey Marian, how you liking Atlanta?

The second line of Mike Fisher-Bryan Smolinski-Daniel Alfredsson. I was very critical of Smolinski’s play, as in addition to not contributing offensively, he often looked like he was coasting out there ala Radek Bonk. But ever since rookie Patrick Eaves was put onto this line, they’ve gotten their act together, and I thought, as a unit, last night was their best game. They were creating a lot of chances in the Leafs end, moving the puck very well, . It was nice to Fisher get his first goal of the season as well. He struggled in his first game back against the Habs Thursday night, but looked very solid Saturday against the Leafs. Strong on the forecheck and very good on the PK. Smolinski was cycling well and distributing the puck like he’s supposed to, and Alfredsson was his usual steady self. All the press will, and should go to Dany Heatley, but I thought this group deserved some recognition.

Dominik Hasek’s timely saves. While the Leafs didn’t put up much of a fight, there were moments, when the game wasn’t totally out of reach for the Buds, that they were putting pressure on “The Dominator”. He held firm and they were unable to get any momentum going.

Brian McGrattan KOing Tie Domi. You can probably count on one hand the number of times someone knocked Domi down and out and bloodied him with a punch (no, Richard Persson, you do not count). I really think that was a demoralizing moment for the rest of the Leafs players, as they saw one of their heart and soul guys get knocked the fuck out by a rookie. I have to hand it to Domi though. Even with, likely, a broken nose, he still came back out in a timely fashion and maintained his play on the ice, still finishing checks and trying to stir something, anything, up. No one can question his toughness. Don Cherry made a comment after the game about being disappointed that no other Leafs went at McGrattan, but I truly think they were so shocked they didn’t know how to respond. And who would’ve? Wade Belak already had a broken nose. Nathan Perrott has never been a true heavyweight. Who? Eric Lindros? The Sens would’ve taken that trade off in a heartbeat. Same for McCabe. Even though it had nothing to do with the scoresheet, this was a big moment in the game, and could end up being a big one overall in the Battle Of Ontario.

Darcy Tucker getting knocked silly. I know, I know, I’m a terrible person for taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, but there are only a handful of players in the league who would fall into this category and Tucker is at the top of that list. It wasn’t very hard to be happy at the sight of Tucker laying motionless on the ice when I saw the replay of a play moments earlier when he went headhunting on Anton Volchenkov.

The penalty killing. I’ve talked about it before, but it warrants another mention: the penalty killing is SO much better this year under Bryan Murray than it was the for the last few years when Jacques Martin was at the helm. The Leafs came in with the best powerplay in the NHL and were completely shut down by the Senators.

Christoph Schubert. Solid, but unspectacular play from the rookie in his first ever career game. He took a bad hooking penalty in the second period that was just a result of laziness, but overall I liked his game. He was very physical in his own end, and unlike Brian Pothier, was not easy to move off the puck. I was questioning the decision to put him on the powerplay, even with the Sens already way up on the scoreboard, but I guess they just wanted to get him as much ice time as possible (he ended up playing over 17 minutes). I’d like to see him get some more game action soon, as in the next couple, to see how if he can keep it up.

Chris Kelly’s first NHL goal. It meant very little in the big picture, as it was already way out of hand by then, but Kelly’s been mucking and grinding all year, so it was nice to see him get rewarded with a goal. When Martin Havlat comes back from his suspension, the team will have a decision to make as far as sending a player down, and I think Kelly’s play has at least made that call difficult.

THE BAD:

Only eight goals scored. Really now, that’s all they could put up? I was hoping for double digits. They probably could’ve but Murray decided to be a gentleman and not try to run up the score. Does anyone think Pat Quinn would’ve done the same? I sure don’t.

HNIC not showing replays of the McGrattan knockout. Am I out of line or being paranoid in suggesting that had it been Domi knocking Gratts down and out, that would’ve not only been replayed a few times but Cherry would’ve had it on his post game spiel?

John Muckler and Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. conversing like pals on the HNIC pre-game show. I’m all for professionalism, but in a rivalry like this, can the GMs at least pretend to dislike each other? I don’t think you’d see Theo Epstein and George Steinbrenner standing together talking about baseball before a Red Sox-Yankees game.

THE OPPOSITION:

Remember in my preview when I said we hadn’t seen both teams play be on their A-game against each other? I still don’t think we have. The Sens were clearly rolling out there, but the Leafs looked, well, absolutely terrible. I would say they were tired, but they only played on Thursday, as did the Senators. I haven’t seen enough Leaf games this season to have any explanation beyond they’re just not a very good team. Every club has off nights, but yikes, that should go down as one of the worst in the history of the franchise. Their were no bright spots. None. It was terrible. I did feel bad for Steffan Kronwall out there. His first NHL game and he had to be paired with the pylon that is Wade Belak. He was –3 for the night. As someone who I watched the game with noted, when the Senators have a very bad game, they beat the Leafs in a shootout 3-2. When the Leafs do, they lose by 8 goals. Leaf Nation, you have officially lost any right to talk smack. Maybe ever. Hope and pry this serves as a wake up call to this club and not a window into what your season will look like.

UP NEXT:

Unfortunately, the Senators will have little time to bask in the glory of beating the shit out of the Leafs up and down the ACC as they’re back in action tomorrow night back at home, with the Flyers coming to town. It will be an interesting test though, as the Flyers are one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. If they can beat the Leafs on their own ice 8-0 and then beat the Flyers the next night, the Senators should get an abundance of confidence.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Here we go again

Historically, Leafs-Sens regular season games have always meant a whole lot more to Ottawa fans than Leaf Nation. Mostly because the Leafs would always beat us in the playoffs, when winning mattered most, a victory in, say, February meant very little to them. For us, it was the only consolation prize we could collect. We also used every regular season win as rationalization for why this would be the year the Sens would finally get that 800 pound gorilla off their back and slay the Leafs in the post season. I think we all know how that’s worked out for us.

However, so far, in the two previous regular season games, the Sens have had the Leafs’ number, beating them 3-2 and 6-5. But neither of those wins were particularly pretty for Ottawa. The first, on opening night, saw them play like absolute crap for the first 50 or so game minutes, and though they were able to come back from it and show the kind of resiliency they always lacked under the previous regime, it still wasn’t the domination we’d all been hoping for. The second game was better, but still saw the Senators give up a 4-2 lead by allowing three consecutive Toronto goals. It looked a lot like de ja vu, but once again, they bounced back to get the win.

For the Senators, this is a chance to prove to Leaf Nation they’re for real. Because both of their wins earlier in the year came in the form of a shootout, Leaf fans have been able to dismiss their losses as “skills competition defeats” and not real hockey games (were they saying this when they won the shootout?). Even Jason Allison, the shootout expert he is, doesn’t give them the credit for the wins in a story in today’s Toronto Sun.

The Leafs are not crazy about giving Ottawa credit for anything but the two extra points.

"Yeah, it's two extra points they got," Jason Allison said. "But, really, as a team you don't feel like you lost. It's an extra point but mentally, it's not like losing."

Jason, when it comes to shooouts, you should always feel like a loser.

For the Leafs, it’s an opportunity to once again prove they can play with one of the elite teams of the league. Before the season started, when everyone and their mother was making predictions on who would finish where (take a look back at my own to see how pointless such an exercise is), the Leafs were routinely dismissed as a non-playoff team by pundits of all varieties. However, so far, they’ve been surprisingly good. It’s still early, yes, but they look more like a 90-point team that will be a tough win for any opponent they face than a 70-point team others will romp.

That’s not to say they’re out of the woods. Pat Quinn, the Tom Benjamin off coaching in that he’s seemingly always cranky and grumpy, has yet to be pleased with their efforts, and usually calls out half the team (not by name, of course) after a game, win or loss. They’ve also lost two of their last three.

Ed Belfour has had to stand on his head more than few times for them to win already, and you have to wonder how long his back will hold up to such pressure. As well, their much criticized defence core has been carried by Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle, both of whom are off to career best seasons, but they can’t be expected to log nearly 30 minutes a game and not be completely out of gas come April.

Up front, Eric Lindros is off to a sizzling start, making John Ferguson Jr. look like the smartest GM in the league (nevermind that a handful of other teams, including Ottawa, made pitches for the Big E), but they still have glaring holes, especially with captain Mats Sundin still out of the line-up with a bad eye.

I don’t believe we’ve truly seen what these two teams, as transformed as they are from when they met in the 2004 playoffs, look like when playing at full tilt yet. Not against each other. Not in the two games they’ve already played. Maybe tonight, we will.

As a Sens fans, I’m inclined to say that if we do, Jason Spezza and Co. will walk all over the Buds, but by now, I’ve learned to know better than that. Against these pesky Leafs, nothing is certain. Except, of course, that Darcy Tucker’s a dick.

OTHER GAME NOTES:

- The Gary Suter/Al MacInnis defence pairing of this generation, Aki Berg and Wade Belak, are both questionable for tonight’s game. Sens fans everyone are disappointed. Berg has rib problems while Belak got his face broken in a fight with Colton Orr on Thursday night. He’ll have to wear a shield if he does play, which means he can’t fight. If he can’t fight, why ever bother playing him? The Leafs might call up Staffan Kronwall or Andy Wozniewski from the Marlies to fill in (why no love for former 67’s captain Brendan Bell?). As well, Mariusz Czerkawski might also miss the game with a shoulder injury. A crushing blow to the Leafs and their chances of winning, I know.

- The Sens are completely healthy, but are still without Martin Havlat due to the suspension. Two more games to serve for kicking a man in the balls with a hockey skate on his foot.

- Christoph Schubert will take the place of Brian Pothier in the line-up, likely on the third defence pairing with Andrej Meszaros. It will be the German's first NHL game of his pro career. I'm glad Pothier's out of the mix against a physical team like the Leafs, but two rookie playing together on the back-end? Eeep.

- Dominik Hasek will get the start for the Senators. Meaning, if it goes to a shootout again, Leaf fans, you don’t even have to bother to watch. You know how it’ll end.

- Bryan McCabe doesn’t believe the Sens are a gritty team.

"They've got a lot more offence now," Bryan McCabe said. "But gritty? Who knows. We'll see. It's a long year."

Apparently Zdeno Chara will have to throw him around like a rag doll again.

Friday, October 28, 2005

TV ratings up, but will it last?

Rob Brodie has a story in Friday's Ottawa Sun about the massive increase in the Canadian ratings for NHL games.

According to the article:

- CBC's Hockey Night in Canada is averaging 1.652 million for the first game of its Saturday doubleheader. That's a jump of 42% over 2003-04, the last season the NHL was on the ice. It gets even better. Game 2's average is 1.223 million, a gain of 82% over '03-04.

- Through 11 games, TSN was pulling in an average of 684,000 for its NHL telecasts. That's a whopping 156% increase over 2003-04 at the same point (the season average that year was 322,000). The huge gains started right on opening night, when 2.1 million tuned into TSN's Senators-Leafs game -- the largest NHL audience in the network's 21-year history. No NHL game on TSN had even cracked a million before then.

- Rogers Sportsnet also hit the history books with the NHL this week. Monday's Bruins-Leafs game pulled in an audience of 791,000, an all-time NHL best for the 'Net. Here's the real kicker -- the game was only seen in southern Ontario. Canucks, Flames and Oilers ratings on the 'Net have also risen sharply.

- Senators ratings on Sportsnet have mushroomed in a major way. Through three games, the 'Net's average is 176,000 -- more than triple the 50,000 average for the first three Sens games on Sportsnet in 2003-04. It's the largest gain recorded for any of the 'Net's five regional team packages. "We're delighted," said Sportsnet spokesman Dave Rashford. "There's a real buzz around the Senators. It's an exciting team."

This had to be expected, and both Brodie and HNIC executive producer Joe Darling admit that the season is still fresh and new, so it's a little early to be breaking out the Cristal. Where will we be in three months from now?

Also, to what extent, if at all, does this abundance of hockey on TV hurt live gates? We're already seeing a bit of it here in Ottawa. So far this season every game, home and away, has been televised, and the Sens, though still averaging over 18,000 a night, have seen their own crowds drop slightly, even with the top atop the NHL.

I must confess that I'm not as up on the U.S. TV situation as I probably should be, but I assume that a lot of the American markets are in similar positions. I do know that in addition to OLN, a lot of NHL is broadcasted regionally on the Fox Sportsnet affiliates. Despite the spin from the talking heads that all is well (and it mostly is), there are a few teams who haven't been packing the crowds in. Is there the oversaturation of games in those markets that there is in Canada?

As well, I'd be interested in knowing how the games have been drawing on OLN. Besides the opening night rating, which was celebrated, it seems like there hasn't been much talk about it, which makes me think that it's not , because you know if it was Gary, Bill, & Ted would be crowing 'till the sun came up.

While TSN and the fine folks at the CBC are throwing office parties to celebrate high Nielsen numbers, quietly, out in Vancouver, the future of how hockey is broadcasted, at least in Canada, might just be being demonstrated: pay-per-view.

Ottawa 4 Montreal 3 (OT)

THE GOOD:

The overall quality of the game. Though it tailed off a little bit after a sizzling first period, this was one of the more entertaining games I’ve seen this NHL season. The pace was excellent, with end to end action and very few whistles. Both clubs were forechecking feverously and pressuring the other to caugh it up. And unlike some games I've seen recentlty, there was actually some aggressiveness and feistiness between the two sides.

Jason Spezza. Even beyond his overtime winning goal that will surely be the play of the day on most highlight shows, Spezza had a tremendous game. He was creating plays all night, won 65% of his faceoffs (including many key ones), and was backchecking hard.

Ray Emery. While most of the fanfare will go to Jose Theodore’s play, and justifiably so because he was fantastic, I really liked Emery’s game. He was in position all night, square to the puck, made the big saves when called upon, and was especially good handling the puck. He was directly responsible for the Habs getting one penalty for too many penalties by rushing to the blueline to play a puck into the players making the change.

Another game of 40 shots on goal. One of Bryan Murray’s edicts that I like is the “just fire the puck at the net” philosophy. With defencemen crippled by the new rules and handcuffed as far as fending off defenders, it makes sense to put the puck at the net in hopes of capitalizing on rebounds.

The third and fourth lines contributing. When one of the top two lines are slacking the way the Daniel Alfredsson threesome was last night, it’s nice to see the lesser lines, who’s role is to mostly provide energy and spark rather than tangible offense, step up and generate chances through hard work . Antoine Vermette was skating his ass off out there. Vaclav Varada was banging and crashing anything in a white sweater. Even Brian McGrattan had a breakaway. And of course, that sniper Chris Neil had another terrific game, consistently going to the net and trying to stir things up. He got robbed by Theodore on a glorious scoring chance that, really, should’ve given him his 5th goal of the season.

Anton Volchenkov taking the body. A couple of unfortunate Habs got caught on the tracks of the "A-Train" last night, and paid for it dearly.

THE BAD:

Brandon Bochenski’s lack of protection. I’m inclined to say the clock is ticking on this experiment. While he certainly lite up the pre-season, so far, eight games in, Bo has been a disappointment. I’ve seen some of his defenders bring up that he’s getting some chances, but what they don’t tell you is the majority of them come from him standing at the side of the net after Spezza or Heatley have made something happen. If he’s the natural scorer everyone advertised him as, wouldn’t Bochenski be able to bury all these chances? The reality is, he’s on this line because he’s supposedly a goal scorer. He’s not scoring goals. The rest of his game isn’t good enough to warrant a top line spot if he’s not producing offensively. And his game is such that it doesn’t really make sense to use him on anything but the top two lines. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in suggesting that unless Bochenski turns it around and has big games this weekend against the Leafs and Flyers, once Martin Havlat comes off his suspension, either he or Alfredsson will take that spot on the number one line and Bo will be sent back down to Binghamton. It’s just not working out.

The powerplay. The fact they went 2 for 4 with the man advantage might make you think their PP was rolling, but that’s just not the case. It was sloppy, looked unorganized most often than not, and still looks like it needs work.

Dany Heatley’s love affair with one-timers. Heatley had a goal, and a decent game overall, but I absolutely hate when he winds up for a one-timer. He either flubs on it or the shot misses the net entirely. Heatley’s got a ridiculous wrist shot and should utilize that more instead.

Anton Volchenkov's penchent for pinching. I took Chara to task the last game for his eagerness to jump into the play, and so it's only fair I do the same to #24. Montreal's first goal came as a result of Volchenkov joining the play and being caught out of position when Montreal got the puck moments later. I understand in this new NHL offense is all the rage, but you still have to be conscious of your responsibilities as a defenceman.

THE OPPOSITION:

I’ve seen more of the Habs than any other team besides the Senators this season, so I’ve seen them when they play well and when they don’t, and I thought last night was one of their down games. Perhaps they were having a hard time coming down from the high that was the overtime win Tuesday night over Philadelphia, but as a team, I didn’t think they had a strong game. The top line of Alexander Perezhogin-Saku Koivu-Alexei Kovalev weren’t much of a factor but I liked the play of Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder who, in addition to their combined five points, were forces all night. I don’t have the stats on hand to prove it, but I’d say that when they were on the ice, the puck was in the Sens’ zone 70% of the time. I also thought the Steve Begin-Radek Bonk-Jan Bulis line had a decent game, but that’s not a group that they get goals from. Jose Theodore was sensational, making it two games in a row that they’ve run into a hot goalies. Even in the loss, Habs fans should be excited because for most of the season up to now, Theo has been hot and cold. He looked more like the Theodore that won the Hart Trophy last night than the one who was letting in a couple soft goals a game this year. Montreal may not be in Ottawa's class as far as the upper echelon teams in the Eastern Conference, but they're not as far off as we all thought before the season started.

UP NEXT:

Just a little team called the Maple Leafs. Round 3 of the B.O.O. commences Saturday night at the ACC. I plan to do a game day preview so I’ll save my thoughts for then. Suffice to say, it should be a fun night.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

is wade redden single?

I'm always intrigued by what Google searches bring people to this blog.

Despite the fact that the primary subject is the Ottawa Senators, very few searches seem to have anything to do with the team. That's somewhat demoralizing, but I'll live.

The most common search, surprisingly, is "sean avery", often with "rachel hunter" also included. What that says about people, I don't know, other than they're apparently very interested in a marginally talented, borderline racist hockey player's love life. Do people wonder who Donald Brashear is dating? What kind of girls Bob Propert slept with on the road?

But "is wade redden single?" may be the best search yet, if for no other reason than to see the sites it did bring up, among them The Tall, Dark and Handsome Guys of the NHL. If you wanted to scope out some alleged hot men like Geoff Courtnall, Matthew Barnaby, Oleg Tverdovsky, and Dainius Zubrus, I imagine that's the site to visit. They also have sections like "Czechs And Slovaks", "Fine-looking Finns", and "Bulldog Cute" (?).

Redden's sex symbol status in this town is somewhat legendary. Go to the Corel Centre on game day and you'll be sure to see at least a couple dozen 20-something females with #6 Senators jerseys, many of whom stand in awe by the glass during the pre-game warmups. Back in the 1999 playoffs, when the Sens were swept by the Buffalo Sabres in the first round despite being heavy favorites to win the series, Redden played terribly, giving up the puck more times than I'm sure anyone could count. At one such game, a angry fan hurled a whole lotta obsenities at Redden after one such play. Richard Pryor would've been offended. One of #6's devoted fans hurled them right back at the possibly intoxicated Sens fan. I had to admire her loyalty. Even with her dream man playing like total shit, she was standing by him. I thought she was nuts and probably needed a restraining order put against her, but I respected her.

Oh, and to the lady (or gentleman, I suppose) who asked the question, I have no idea.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Martin Havlat not long for Ottawa?

If you subscribe to the theory of where there’s smoke there’s fire, then Martin Havlat’s days in a Senators uniform may be numbered.

The suspended speedster, who Bobby Clarke still seems to have on his shitlist, seems to be the hottest property in the NHL right now. Why that is, I don’t know. There’s no denying his talent, but there are a handful of comparable players in the league. Yet if you believe the rumor mill, GMs are fighting over themselves to acquire Havlat.

Some have mentioned that because he’ll be a restricted free agent at the end of this year, Havlat will have to be moved. The Sens will likely make re-signing unrestricted defencemen Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara their top priorities and you could probably estimate where they’ll be on the pay scale. Jason Spezza will also need a new contract, and though he’ll be restricted and can’t leave, you have to think that if they don't give him a Rick Nash-like longterm deal, and instead once again try to sign him to a lower paying one-year contract, some other team will send an offer sheet his way.

While we don’t know where the cap will be, even if we assume if goes up by a couple million, the Senators will still be up against it. Thus, some have theorized that Havlat will be the odd man out.

The idea of moving Martin Havlat may not be a new one, by the way. There were reports that during this past offseason, when the Marian Hossa contract talks weren’t going well, that they were close to moving Havlat to the Hurricanes for Erik Cole. Alas, they traded Hossa to Atlanta for Dany Heatley instead (and by the way, how you liking the ATL Marian?). Moving Havlat was not longer necessary.

It’s since heated up again.

”Code”, who looks to be cut from the same cloth as the infamous Eklund, is reporting that the Senators and Minnesota Wild have been in talks to deal wingers, with Havlat going to Minnesota for Marian Gaborik. Sadly, I’m not a member of his site’s “insider” forum (I know, I know, how will I ever exist), so I can’t say what he says in the promised elaboration, but we can probably assume it’s a lotta nonsense. Gaborik’s had injury problems all season and will also be up for a new contract soon.

Meanwhile, over in Edmonton, GM Kevin Lowe has apparently set his sights on “Mach 9” as a remedy to save the sinking ship that has become the Oilers. This has led to both Oilers fans and Sens fans to throw names around about who would come this way. Ryan Smyth, Raffi Torres, Radek Dvorak, Ales Hemsky, Jason Smith. You name them, they’re on their way to Ottawa.

And finally, this afternoon on The Team 1200’s drivetime show, a rumor coming out of New York was brought up: Havlat to the Rangers for Martin Rucinsky, Tom Poti, and Dominic Moore. Nevermind that, with the salary cap now in place, this move makes zero sense. Combined those three players make close to $6 million, while Havlat only takes up $2.6 million of cap space. For hockey reasons, it’s a difficult deal to justify as well. Though Rucinsky would give the Sens a natural left winger who can score, something they’ve been without since they traded Shawn McEachern to Atlanta for Brian Pothier after the 2001 season, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Tom Poti has played like shit in New York this season and is in head coach Tom Renney’s doghouse as we speak. Why inherite that headache? As for Moore, though he’s a promising young player, he’s not exactly a bluechipper.

If you read this blog regularly, you’d realize, based on how few of them I talk about, that I’m not a big rumor guy, but when are this many, you have to at least acknowledge them.

That said, I’m not holding my breath waiting for a trade of this magnitude.

Even if the Senators are down on Havlat right now because of the embarrassming kicking incident, I find it hard to believe they’re listening to many offers. Even if they have resigned themselves to the fact that they’ll have a hard time bringing Havlat back for next year due to the financial restraints of the salary cap, would it not make more sense to just hold onto Havlat for this year, when it looks like they’ll have their best shot at the Cup with this core group anyway, since he’s a pretty good goal scorer?

Still, all this talk might make you wonder…

Carolina 3 Ottawa 2

THE GOOD:

Peter Schaefer getting time on the powerplay. I was glad to see Schaefer, who played his best game of the season Friday night in the win over the Lightning, get rewarded with a shot to play on the powerplay. Since he was traded to the Senators in the summer of 2002, Schaefer has consistently been one of the hardest working players on the team, and though his offensive output isn’t always as steady as fans of the team would like, you can never question the effort.

Vaclav Varada’s big hit on Kevyn Adams. Varada’s role on the team this year might be different than it was last season, when he was getting a lot of time on the top line with Marian Hossa and Radek Bonk, but they’ll still need him to provide that pesty, agitator energy. Hits like that one set a physical tone.

Wade Redden. Even though he didn’t figure into the scoring, I liked Wade Redden’s game, especially in his own end. After starting the season slow with an absolutely horrible first game against the Leafs on opening night, Redden’s play has gotten increasingly better every game so far.

Patrick Eaves netting his first NHL goal. The kid has worked his tail off for the four games he’s been up with the big club and up to last night only had an assist and a nasty cut on his face from a vicious hit from behind to show for it. So I was happy Eaves collected his first ever NHL goal less than a minute into the game. I keep saying Eaves will go back down to Bingo, and then he plays again, so I’m not making that mistake again. With the way “Mr. Glass” Mike Fisher is built, even if he is sent down, Eaves could be back up in a week. Fisher might stub his toe and be out a month.

THE BAD:

No longer undefeated. Yeah, they were going to lose eventually, but in the back of my head, I had some romantic idea of the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators going undefeated. Would the 1972 Miami Dolphins care about that one too?

The liability that is Brian Pothier. Again, nothing new, I know, but it still frustrates me to no end to see Pothier get pushed around in his own end the way he does. Without question, he’s the one Senator who, when they touch the puck in the defensive zone, I hold my breath. In addition to the fact that he’s prone to giveaways, Pothier gets moved off the puck by opposition forwards regularly. I understand that he’s a good puck carrying defenceman, is solid on the powerplay, and has a nice passing touch, but are all these things worth the risk that he is as soon as the play comes to the Senators end? It’s disappointing that he’s paired with rookie Andrej Meszaros, who’s been very good this season, because on the one hand I want Meszaros to get the big time ice his play warrants, but I know that means Brian Pothier also takes the ice. It’s becoming quite the dilemma for me.

Zdeno Chara pinching on the PK. I talked about it previously, and it’s something that should be addressed. Zdeno Chara is a major part of the penalty killing unit, which is worlds better this season under Bryan Murray than it was with the previous regime, but he cannot pinch the way he did last night. On Carolina’s first goal, they were on the powerplay, and turned the puck over. One of the Ottawa forwards (I can’t recall who) chased the puck and Chara joined the rush for a two-on-one scoring opportunity. Normally, I’m all for these. But Chara, though relatively quick for someone who’s 6’9” and 260 pounds, doesn’t have the footspeed to do this kind of thing. Because if they do not score and the play continues, the opposition now has two of the penalty killers in a compromising position. Last night, it resulted in a goal.

Theatrics on ice. It’s been talked about elsewhere already this season, but this is the first time in a Sens game diving became a significant issue. There were two consecutive Senators penalties which absolutely saw the Hurricane player involved embellish the infraction by falling to the ice. This is not to say the initial penalty the Senators took was invalid. They know that you can’t impede a player with your stick, and you can’t take one of your hands of your own stick and put it on the opposing player, but if the player on the other side falling to the ice with a dive, they should be sent to the box too. The Senators combated it by doing it themselves, as Jason Spezza, after colliding with Erik Cole along the boards in the neutral zone, fell down despite the fact the contact was pretty minimal. It was still interference on Cole’s part, but Spezza should’ve had time in the sin bin as well. The TV crew, Dean Brown and Garry Galley, said that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and if the Hurricanes were going to do it and not only get away with diving but prosper from it, the Sens might as well too. I disagree. It’s embarrassing, and the tired cliché of two wrongs not making a right seems appropriate here. Of course, the Hurricanes took the reigns again late in the game when Martin Gerber was bumped by Chris Neil with a few minutes left on the clock, and went down like he’d been shot. That was a major penalty because it put the Sens on the PK for two of the last three minutes of the game with them down a goal. Some might say that you can’t blame the ‘Canes for trying, but I can’t follow suit. These kind of things need to be eliminated from the game immediately. There was a time, a few years ago, when the NHL was being very proactive in their attempt to eliminate diving. They identified divers publicly and developed the negative stigma around it. For whatever reason, they’ve gone back on that since. Let’s hope the people in the league offices see this as the problem is it as act accordingly.

The impotent powerplay in the second half of the third period. The Sens powerplay has been pretty impressive this season, but last night it failed them. Down a goal, they had two golden opportunities. A 5-on-3 for over a minute and then a few minutes later another powerplay. They could not capitalize. Some credit must go to Carolina’s good penalty killers, who did a excellent job of shutting down the shooting lanes. The Sens were able to move the puck from player to player on both powerplays, but could not get shots through. If they did, they missed the net. Something tells me Bryan Murray will have some powerplay meetings before Thursday’s home game against the Habs.

NHL scheduling. I’m not blaming the NHL for the Sens’ loss, because ultimately they’re responsible, but the schedule they’ve had for the past two weeks has been awful. Including last night’s game, they played three games in the last 13 days.

Liberties taken with Dominik Hasek after the whistle. Yes, more complaining about officiating. The Hurricanes routinely slashed and chopped at Dominik Hasek’s glove and pads after the whistle and got no penalty. It continued throughout the game, and finally, Zdeno Chara had enough and manhandled one of the Carolina forwards. He was given a penalty. If the officials are not going to take care of it, then allow the Sens defencemen to.

THE OPPOSITION:

Much has been made about how the Ottawa Senators, under new coach Murray, are a different club, but if you want an example of a transformed team, look no further than Raleigh, NC and the Carolina Hurricanes. Previously, a slow, plodding team that has been among the league’s lowest scorers for years, the new ‘Canes, coached by Peter Laviolette, are fast skating and explosive. Similar to how the old Sens would never have come back to beat the Leafs, the old Hurricanes likely wouldn’t have come back after two quick, demoralizing goals. They fought back the ol’ fashioned way: outworking the Senators, who with a two goal lead laid back and didn’t continue pressing. The goals to even the score didn’t come right about, but they kept at it and it paid off with a W. They do look like a different team. They move the puck a lot better and are much more aggressive on both the forecheck and when carrying the puck into the opposing end, rather than simply dumping and chasing. Part of that is the personnel. Two of their big offseason moves were bringing in Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney, both of whom are small, speedy forwards, and they fit in well with the other players they’ve developed (Eric Staal, Matt Cullen, etc.). Their defence still looks to need some work, as especially in the first they let Sens forwards go to the net without paying any price. Oh, and remember my season preview when I said goaltending would be an issue for the ‘Canes? I’m an idiot. Martin Gerber was out of this world, making 44 saves, including, at least, 10 game saving ones, with the biggest being a save on Daniel Alfredsson with two seconds left in the game. I doubt he can play like this every night, but if they can get even a fraction of this play from Gerber and hot rookie Cam Ward, they’ll be well positioned come April. Want another example of how stupid predictions are: I had the Hurricanes missing the playoffs. Boy does that look bad right about now.

UP NEXT:

Maybe getting the inevitable loss out of the way will serve the Sens good and allow them to refocus and realize they’re not invincible. They’ll host the Canadiens Thursday night back at the Corel Centre. They beat the Habs a few weeks back when Montreal had their home opener, spoiling it badly, so you gotta think they’ll want some revenge. The Habs are playing pretty well despite not getting strong play from Jose Theodore, which should give fans of the team solice because previously, to even be competitive, they had to have Theo stand on his head most nights. He’ll come around eventually, and when he does, the Canadiens could be even more dangerous.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Ottawa 4 Tampa Bay 1

THE GOOD:

Andrej Meszaros: With each game, it seems like the confidence grows. Both his own as a player, as well as the coaching staff’s in the young rookie defenceman. Meszaros got ice time on the powerplay and the penalty killing unit when the game was still close, and excelled in the spots. If someone didn’t tell you, there’s no way you’d guess he’s 20 years old and has only a handful of NHL games under his belt. His five hits registered led the team and he made several veteran-like plays in his own end when Tampa was putting on the pressure.

Chris Neil the goal scorer. By registering his fourth goal of the season, and first at even strength, proving it’s not just a powerplay phenomenon, Neil now has more goals than teammates Dany Heatley, Martin Havlat, Brandon Bochenski, and Bryan Smolinski as well as heralded goal scorers Mario Lemieux, Peter Forsberg, Chris Drury, Saku Koivu, Jason Arnott, Todd Bertuzzi, Brad Richards, Alexei Yashin, Pavel Datsyuk, Alexei Kovalev, Bill Guerin, Mike Modano, Shane Doan, Martin St. Louis, Mark Recchi, and Jarome Iginla. Oh, and a certain rookie in Pittsburgh. He’s becoming a regular Rocket Richard. His NHL career high for goals in a season is 8. At this pace, he’ll beat that by the end of November. And it’s clear the coaching staff is giving Neil the ball to run with. He finished with 16:08 of icetime, 4th among all Senators’ forwards. I like to think I’m pretty good at following this team’s development, but I never saw this coming.

Daniel Alfredsson. Just read what I said about Alfie’s play in every other Sens game. Looking for an early Hart Trophy candidate? Vote #11.

Peter Schaefer. Schaefer’s had a good season thus far, but his good play has mostly been limited to his strong forechecking, excellent play along the boards, and good defensive zone coverage. Last night, you could add offensive force to that list. In addition to his highlite reel goal, he was a presence in the Lightning’s end all night. Once Martin Havlat comes back from his banishment, it’d be nice if they can get something going together on the third line.

Garry Galley on color commentary. Galley has replaced my enemy Greg Millen on the Sportsnet broadcasts. I missed his first outing because I was at the Corel Centre in person, but I was very impressed with what I heard last night. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, because I’ve always enjoyed Galley’s radio shows on The Team 1200, but sometimes, good on radio doesn’t mean good in the booth.

THE BAD:

The overall pace of the game. You’d think a game between the Tampa Bay Lightning, defending Stanley Cup champions, and the Ottawa Senators, the consensus favorites to take it from them, with all the offensive talent on both sides, would be nonstop excitement, right? Wrong. It looked a lot like that old NHL we pray never rears its ugly head ever again. Both teams played conservatively for the majority of the contest, and it was not much fun to watch. It got better in the third when, with Ottawa up 2-1, Tampa was forced to take chances offensively to get back in the game, thus creating odd man rushes at both ends of the ice. However, it didn’t last because Ottawa pounced on those openings with two quick goals to essentially put it out of reach. From then on, Tampa looked to be playing to run the clock down and the Sens, though not laying back completely, weren’t trying to run up the score either. I imagine casual fans, with no real rooting interest either way, looked at the schedule, saw this, and said “this seems like a game I’d want to check out”. If you did, sorry. It wasn’t even half as entertaining as the New York-New York game on Wednesday night at MSG. Let’s hope this was an aberration and not a glimpse into what the new NHL will look like with players and coaches having adjusted accordingly.

Nick Tarnasky’s hit from behind on Patrick Eaves. It happened late in the third, with the game pretty much over, so I imagine some missed it, but it was vicious. Eaves caught the edge of the top of the boards, and even though he wears a visor, still got a nasty cut on his face that forced him to leave the game. Worst of all, no penalty was assessed. How the officials could’ve missed it is beyond me, as it happened just as Eaves passed the puck. Dreadful.

Chris Phillips. Phillips is usually ol’ reliable on the backend, but he struggled last night. Several times he gave the puck away, he was routinely out of position in his own end, and made more than a couple bad passes. I’m sure it was just an off night for Phillips, who’s always been a slow starter of sorts.

The ice at the St. Pete Times Forum. I’m not sure if it was the weather or just a bad job by the arena staff, but the condition of the ice looked to be atrocious. The puck was bouncing all night and players were falling down for seemingly no reason. Hockey in warm climates has to face this every now and then and last night they got caught.

THE OPPOSITION:

Tampa played the night before, while the Sens hadn’t been on the ice for a game in five days, so maybe the level of rest was uneven, but the Lightning did not look like an elite team. With the exception of a few rushes where their top forwards made pylons out of the Senators best two defencemen, they were slow, didn’t move the puck well, and failed to sustain any pressure in the Sens’ end. It was interesting to note that last season’s MVP, Martin St. Louis, spent most of the game on the third and fourth lines. Of their other top players, Vincent Lecavalier at least generated some offense, while Brad Richards was invisible most of the night. Dan Boyle, the Ottawa native who brought the Cup to the nation’s capital last summer, had a terrible game, fanning on at least two shots and looking uncomfortable most of the night. In net, much had been made about how Tampa would be hurt by the loss of Nikolai Khabibulin, but so far this season, John Grahame had held his own while the Bulin Wall has struggled behind an inferior team. While no one can fault Grahame for the Bolts’ loss last night, he also didn’t make any of the big saves that a team can use as a momentum builder. Even in a weak division, Tampa will need to fine tune things if they plan on making another run at the Cup, because the team I saw Friday night did not look like one I’d bet on repeating. Especially noteworthy was their awful powerplay. They went 0 for 6 with the man advantage, but even worse, on five of those opportunities, failed to register a single shot on goal during the PP. With all the weapons they have upfront, that is unacceptable, and I imagine their poor performance will result in not only a stern tongue lashing from the coach but extended practices.

UP NEXT:

If you’d look at your NHL schedule, you’d see the Sens are schedule to face former Czar Jacques Martin in Ft. Lauderdale tomorrow night. In case you missed it, due to the Hurricane Wilma, the game has been rescheduled for December 5th. Instead of heading south, the Sens have a few days off before going up to Raleigh to play the Carolina Hurricanes, a team I’m interested in seeing. TSN.ca’s wacky power rankings had them at #3 behind Ottawa and the Maple Leafs, yet I can’t understand why. They have some promising young players, the most notable being Eric Staal, who’s off to a flaming start, and rookie goalie Cam Ward, and might provide stiff competition for the still unbeaten Senators.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Lemons into lemonade, or how I learned to dislike the shootout

Whoever is in charge of creating the NHL schedule (and by now, it might not even be a person, but rather a computer) needs to be slapped. As of today, the Ottawa Senators have played one game in the last nine days. With the threat of Saturday night’s game against the Florida Panthers being cancelled due to yet another hurricane that looks to be hitting South Florida, the Senators should be a rested bunch.

If not for the Martin Havlat incident, I don’t know what anyone who follows this team would write about. As a blogger that mostly concentrates on the Sens, it’s been slow going, but fortunately, I don’t have any sort of editor breathing down my neck for a story. The local papers are full of fluff pieces, many about the latest on “Mr. Glass” Mike Fisher and his injury. While there probably is a story about Fisher and his injury history to be written, because it wouldn’t be positive and he’s a fan favorite (as well as maybe the most likeable and easy to deal with Senator), no one in the media has dared to do so.

With no Senators hockey, I’ve tried to make the best of a bad situation. As a fan, I’ve had to look elsewhere to get my NHL fix. The pusher has been TSN.

Tuesday night I watched most of the Bruins-Canadiens game, and it was quite good. I saw bits and pieces of their game in Boston on opening night, but what I saw was not exactly entertaining. Slow paced, little intensity, very few scoring chances. For two teams that allegedly still hate each other, it was under whelming. Fortunately, their contest this week was more up my alley. If you’re a fan of the Canadiens, you have to like your chances this season. It’s a speedy team that, despite it’s smallish size, isn’t afraid to play a physical game. With defencemen now impotent to stop defenders from going to the net, now guys like Mike Ribiero, who previously would’ve never dared to pay the physical price necessary to screen a goal, can do so. The Bruins still look to be a team trying to find their way. They turned over a lot of talent during the near-18 month layoff, and are without their captain and best player Joe Thornton (who I have on my fantasy team, as my first round pick, unfortunately) as well as Alexei Zhamnov who they expected to make a big impact, so what we’re seeing probably isn’t the Bruins team that will have it going by March, but in a division that is as tight as any other, they can’t afford to fall behind early. I picked them to win the Northeast, but having seen all the teams in that division at least twice, they may be the worst team thus far.

Another point on the Montreal game: the crowd was electric. Having lived less than two hours from Montreal for most of my life, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve never been to an NHL game in the city. Though I had every intention of going before it closed, I never made it to the Forum. I have no good excuse for why this is. I’ve decided, before the season is over, I will go to a Habs game. While the Corel Centre isn’t the cavern of quiet some make it out to be, it also isn’t exactly booming with crowd noise either. And I’m not going to the ACC. I have a hard enough time dealing with the spattering of Leaf fans that come to the Corel Centre (and believe it or not, they come, with Leafs jersey on, to other game just to boo the Sens). If I had to fight off 19,000 of them, I might implode from within. So Montreal, I’m coming, eventually.

Last night was another classic rivalry revisited. New York-New York. The truth is, much like the Battle Of Alberta for the last seven or so years, this has been a battle that few people outside of the fans of the two teams involved have cared much about. After all, when was the last time they played in a game that meant anything? With the way each team recycles players, how can any genuine animosity build up between the two sides? While they’ve still got some ground to make up to return to the old days when a game between these two teams actually mattered, I thought last night’s affair was great hockey. And considering these are two teams I expected to finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, that says a lot. If two teams as unmanned as the Rangers and Islanders can entertain someone like me, who has no real emotional investment in the game one way or another, that says a lot about the extend the game has improved quality wise. I’m still not sold on either club as a playoff team, but they may not be the basement dwellers I expected either. So, to recap my barely month old predictions: the Bruins,who I predicted to win the Eastern Conference, sorta stink, and the two New York teams, who I said would finish at the bottom, ahead only of the laughably bad Capitals (who haven’t failed to disappoint), are pretty good. Perhaps this is evidence enough that predictions are for suckers.

I must say though, as much as I enjoyed the game, I was very much deflated by the finale. Up to then, I had sort of been in the middle of the shootout debate. The only ones I had seen in full, after watching an entire game, involved the Senators and Leafs, and it wouldn’t have been unfair to suggest that the fact my team won both charmed me on the concept. If they had lost, I would probably be cursing it’s innovation, calling it a skills competition and not part of hockey, the way those cranky members of Leaf Nation have been.

But you can officially put me in the “I don’t like it” group. After watching an entire game that went back and forth, it felt very wrong to end it in such a manner. I do enjoy that there are winners and losers. While I will listen to the purists who say some games should be tied, I also think that at the end of the day, a fan that pays good money to see a hockey game should leave with a victor. That’s sports. People win and people lose. Even if a game is as close as can be from the moment the first puck is dropped, it still feels better when there is a decision.

But the shootout should not be the way to decide it. I like the Garry Galley idea of going to three-on-three. I know the counter argument will be that with TV and all, they can’t have games going that long, but alas, it’s a price to pay.

What Gary Bettman didn’t say during his celebration press conference yesterday in Toronto was the real reason the shootout was implemented: because they thought the hockey would stink. After all, for the most part, is has for the almost 10 years now. They figured, at least if the games are bad, the shootout will provide some excitement.

Except, something strange has happened: the rules changes they put in place to make the game more exciting have worked. With the exception of a small but vocal minority who are poopooing the new NHL (most of whom would hate whatever was going on, I’m convinced), the response has been glowing. I’m sure the suits and ties in New York are as surprised by this as anybody. So really, there is no need for a shootout to provide entertainment because on most nights, we’re getting in regulation and the occasional overtime.

Ultimately, the league has to do whatever to make the fans happy, and if the majority wants a shootout, then it should stay in, regardless of what blowhards like myself say. But I truly think, once the novelty wears off, once it loses it’s mystique (I’ve always contended that much of the reason for the desire for the shootout came down to we didn’t have it; grass is greener and all that nonsense), the shootout will be as popular as it now. Call it a hunch, a guess, or just me hoping, but that’s how I see it going down.

The issue is, when does the NHL say, okay, we tried this, it didn’t work the way we wanted, let’s take it back? I’d love to say they’d so at the first sign it wasn’t effective, but we should all know better by now. The people who run this league are far too stubborn, have way too much pride, to do that. To take it back after a year would be admitting failure. Gary Bettman doesn’t like to do that. After all, this is the same guy who for years said the game was fine, as entertaining as ever, etc. Now, he says the same thing, and subtly hints that it was broken before, thereby proving that he was just spinning all those years. He is the commissioner, so some spinjobs are in order, but with Gary, you get the feeling it’s the more the merrier.

Bob McCowan made an interesting point on tonight’s Prime Time Sports. The NFL, who are often used as the poster league for how to build an enterprise, often implement new rules, and have never hesitated to either tweak and/or remove something if it’s not working.
Does anyone have the confidence in the NHL to do the same? I didn't think so.

So, at least for a while, we're stuck with the shootout. Maybe I'll warm back up to it when the Senators win yet another one, but right now, it stinks.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The indefensible

I probably shouldn’t be surprised that if anyone was going to try and defend what Martin Havlat did Saturday night it would be Ottawa Sun writer Don Brennan, a/k/a the laughing stock of the Ottawa sports media. And believe me, in this city, full of hack scribes, that’s saying a lot.

Brennan routinely plays devil’s advocate in his “columns”, taking a stance contrary to the one the rest of us do. If we say the sky is blue, Brennan will yell it’s red, dammit! By now I’ve learned to mostly ignore him and his idiotic rantings, because most of the time they seem insincere and usually reek of an attempt to drum up controversy just for the sake of it.

So, having said that, I feel somewhat stupid for even spending one second on this guy, but every now and then, he says something SO dumb, SO moronic, I can’t help myself. Yesterday was one of those days, as we were treated to yet another Don Brennan op-ed.

The title of his latest ridiculous piece: “Havlat did what he had to do”

Basically, Brennan rationalizes that because he’s small and often targeted by the other team’s tough players because he’s a skilled player, Martin Havlat's actions are understandable. He even quotes an anonymous ex-NHLer who says that Havlat had few options to respond to Hal Gill’s rough stuff.

"You've got that pain from the net in your back .... I'm pretty sure it doesn't feel very good, and you've got that big ape on you," said the ex-player. "You've got no leverage, you're pissed off and the only thing free is your feet.

"I'm not condoning his actions, but I'm not exactly sure what other recourse he had."

I would say I’d like to know who exactly this ex-player is, but we can probably assume he doesn’t exist and Brennan is just making him up to support his case. After all, if a former NHL player sorta says it’s okay (and yes, he is condoning his actions), then it must be. They know the game better than you and I ever will (an absurd notion).

Brennan also shows his own character by saying he would do the same thing if put into “Mach 9”’s position. Why does that not surprise me?

And before you accuse Brennan of being a homer, and only defending Havlat because he’s a Senator, you must understand this is the same writer who essentially wrote off the Sens’ chances of winning the Stanley Cup this year because they have Dominik Hasek in net. He even went so far to say that the team would’ve been better off with Patrick Lalime agin. Even though it’s early, so far Hasek has been sensational, Lalime has transformed into Andre Racciott in St. Louis, and, surprise surprise, Brennan has been proven wrong. Somehow I don’t think he’ll ever admit it though.

Brennan isn’t alone in the Martin Havlat Sympathizers club. A thread was started at the Sens board on the Hockeys Future Boards asking if Havlat was a dirty player, and a lot of the responses were that he wasn’t. Apparently, doing dirty things doesn’t make you dirty, and many noted most of his incidents have been reactionary. But if someone punches me, and I shoot them dead, does that mean I’m not a murderer?

Let me put it in simple terms: there is no defending what Martin Havlat did. At all. It was reprehensible.

I like Martin Havlat as a player. I think he’s one of the most talented, exciting players in the NHL, and has proven it with his play this year. But unfortunately, he also seems to lack that part of the brain that says “wait, don’t do that, it’s stupid”. He kicked Eric Cairns the last time there was hockey, crosschecked Mark Recchi in the face because he was hooking him (I guess he had no other options there too, huh Don?), and has now kicked someone again.

What other options did he have? Fight back seems to make sense to me. Punch, slash at his legs, whatever. Kicking should be an absolute last resort. If Gill was on top of him reigning blows onto his face or gouging his eye the way Dale Purinton did in the pre-season or intentionally slashed him in the face, then maybe, MAYBE, I might listen to these arguments that he was just defending himself. I doubt I’d buy into it, but I’d be willing to hear it.

Hal Gill was roughing Martin Havlat up. That’s it. He was crosschecking him in the chest and pushing his face. I’m sure it didn’t feel good and I imagine it’s not a fun position to be in, but Havlat’s life was not in danger, nor was he on the verge of serious injury had this gone on for another 20 seconds. Kicking him in the balls should not have even entered his mind as a course of action, and the fact it not only did but that he apparently thought it was appropriate shows what kind of maturity as a player he has.

Was the suspension too harsh when you consider Andy Sutton drove Darcy Tucker’s face into the glass, seemingly with every intention to hurt Tucker, and only got four games? Maybe. Even though it sucks as a fan of the team they’ll be without one of their best players for five games, when I put my objective onlooker hat on, five games seems very appropriate.

Martin Havlat has to be taught a lesson. These kind of things cannot be tolerated. As I said Sunday, he’s lucky that none of his boneheaded moves have hurt anybody yet, but if he keeps it up, it will happen eventually. He’ll run out of luck sooner or later. What then? Will these same defenders rush to his side, or vilify him with the rest of us, acting as if they felt that way all along?

Havlat always says he doesn’t mean to hurt anyone. He didn’t mean to hurt Mark Recchi, he didn’t mean to hurt Hal Gill. That’s all well and good to say, but when you turn around and stick someone across the teeth, you are trying to hurt them. When you kick someone in the groin with a skate on your foot, you’re trying to hurt them.

I’d be shocked if one of his teammates, like captain Daniel Alfredsson, or coach Bryan Murray or GM John Muckler, or all three, didn’t sit down with the talented Havlat and tell him in no uncertain terms that events like this cannot continue to happen. They not only reflect poorly on him, but on the organization as a whole.

If you recall, it was Havlat’s crosscheck on Recchi that angered Ken Hitchcock and the Flyers and resulted in that big brawl in Philly towards the end of the year. A game that saw a new NHL record set for penalty minutes. Havlat wasn’t forced to answer for his actions, because Jacques Martin had Havlat serve one of the penalties the team took. He was safe and tucked away in the penalty box while the rest of his teammates were fighting for their lives against a pretty tough club. Something tells me Murray wouldn’t be so kind if that same situation arose now.

In Ottawa we defend our team as passionately as any other sports fan. I’ve argued with Leaf fans until I’m blue in the face and there have been more times when, at games between the two teams, an altercation nearly erupted than I’d like to admit. But there has to be a line drawn somewhere.

This is that line.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Update From The Farm #2

PENALTIES COST BABY SENS HOME OPENER

Despite playing in front of a near sellout crowd of 4,613 (98 people shy of a sellout), the Binghamton Senators were unable to chalk up their first W of the season against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers Saturday night, losing 5-4.

That tends to happen when you give your opponent 11 powerplay opportunities. Bridgeport, the AHL affiliate of the New York Islanders, downed the Baby Sens in a high scoring, penalty filled affair that saw former Islander Justin Papineau, who many were surprised to see not make the NHL roster, score a natural hat trick.

After the loss, Sens head coach Dave Cameron had a message for those who take too many penalties:

"We're at the point where guys won't play," he said. "If a guy can't play without taking penalties, he won't play."

On the whole, the game seems to have been reminiscent of a lot of NHL contests of late: decided by special teams. The Sens were not without their highlights on that end either, as both new captain Denis Hamel and Steve Martins scored with the man advantage. Hamel knows this trend can’t continue though.

"We got too many penalties all game long," Senators captain Hamel said. "If we want to get more wins, we need to get a little more disciplined. With the new rules, I think it'll be like that every game. If we don't learn now, it'll be a long season."

The powerplay this season has also gotten a facelift. Last year, with no NHL, the Baby Sens could throw out Spezza, Vermette, Bochenski, etc. up front and Pothier and Volchenkov on the point. Now that the lockout has ended, it’s back to reality. Playing the point on the PP this year so far have been Tomas Malec and Filip Novak. Novak has impressed with his puck moving skills, and so far looks like he’ll be right at home in that role, but the same apparently can’t be said for Malec. If he continues to struggle, don’t be shocked if Cameron throws someone like Neil Komadoski, who quarterbacked the powerplay in Notre Dame, or Neil Petruic, who did the same at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, to be given a shot to shine.

Even though the game was not sold out, the atmosphere was said to be electric in the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena. Fans gave the team standing ovations during the pre-game introductions, with Hamel and goalie Billy Thompson receiving the loudest receptions. But as the game went on, a new star emerged.

Jeff Hereema, a 25-year-old career minor leaguer who’s spent time in the Vancouver, Carolina, and St. Louis organizations, was signed in the offseason as a free agent by the Sens. A former first round pick, 11th overall, of the Hurricanes in 1998, he’s never panned out as a NHLer, but appears to have found a spot with the Senators. Having missed the season opener against Philadelphia with a shoulder strain, he bounced back and scored two of their four goals and most said he was their best forward on the night. Martins, who had two assists in addition to his PP goal, also had a strong game.

Observers of the team have noted that Martins, a small, speedy forward (his height listing of 5’9” is more than a little generous) seems to have benefited from the new crackdown on obstruction and the rule changes to speed up as much as anyone in the AHL.

SENS GET READY FOR TOUGH SCHEDULE

So far this season, the Binghamton Senators have had it pretty easy. Having only played two games in eight games up this point, it’s been slow going, but it will get very busy very soon.

The team has the entire work week off, likely full of only practices, but next Friday will host the Hershey Bears, the AHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals. I know, the Caps already look like an AHL team, so imagine what their farm team consists of, but they do have some promising youngsters. Among them, two former Sens prospects in Jakub Klepis (traded to Buffalo for Vaclav Varada during the 2002-03 season, and then to the Caps for Mike Grier last year) and Brooks Laich (traded for Peter Bondra near last season’s trade deadline). Both are former first round picks of the Sens, are were moved in a sign of the changing of the guard as far as how they go about team building. Previously, the team never would’ve mortgaged their future for today, but each are now gone. In addition, the Bears has some homegrown prospects as well, including Christopher Bourque (son of, well, ya know), Eric Fehr (their first round pick in 2003 who put up 59 goals and 111 points last year with Brandon of the WHL), and Tomas Fleischmann (former two-time 30 goal scorer in junior). The Bears have started the year 2-1 with a shootout loss.

The Sens get no rest, as the next night they travel to Wilkes Barre-Scranton to face the Penguins. Like the Bears, they’re an AHL affiliate of a team that has been embarrassingly bad in recent years, so lots of prospects will be present. Among them Ryan Whitney (the 5th overall pick in 2002), Michel Ouellet (their 4th round pick in 2000 and two-time 40-goal scorer in junior), Jonathan Filewich (40 goal scorer last year in the WHL), and Ryan Stone (2nd round pick in 2003 who put up 99 points last year in the WHL). In four games so far, the Baby Pens are 4-0, so that should be a big test for the Senators.

And finally, they wrap up their busy weekend with their third game in as many nights by heading to Hershey for a rematch with the Bears. Often times, when two teams play each other within a short period of time, animosity builds and a playoff like atmosphere develops. We’ll see if that will be the case here.

Winless thus far, the Sens will be in for a difficult weekend, and need to come up with some points to try and get some momentum going. Falling behind the eight ball early in the year is never a good situation to be in.

EAVES GETTING TO KNOW THE WAY

By now, I think Patrick Eaves has the route from Binghamton to Ottawa, and back, memorized. Having made it twice already, playing in Tuesday’s game in Montreal, traveling back to Binghamton to practice with the Baby Sens, and then being brought back to Ottawa Saturday for the home contest with the Bruins, Eaves has now played more games in an Ottawa uniform than with Bingo.

Because of waiver issues, Eaves can likely expect to make this trek often this season. Having been made captain, it’s doubtful the Sens will risk losing Denis Hamelfor nothing by calling him up and then sending him back down. The same goes for Steve Martins, who’s playing on the top line with Hamel and lighting it up so far this year.

Eaves does not have to clear waivers. So even though he’s less NHL ready than the other two, and maybe even a few other Baby Sens, the club has already established that he’ll be the farm hand used when the team is short forwards.

It’s interesting to note that Eaves was put on a top line when called up to Ottawa, playing on the left side with Bryan Smolinski and Daniel Alfredsson and faring pretty well in the spot. Even though he’s yet to suit up as a Binghamton Senator, he’s been slotted into that Hamel-Martin top line when he does. Obviously, what line he’s used on when called up depends on the injury and what the team needs, but the fact they put him on the #2 line shows what kind of confidence they have in the rookie. So it’s very possible that Eaves will get top minutes in both Ottawa and Bingo, a unique scenario, as most times call ups get put on the bottom lines.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Ottawa 5 Boston 1

THE GOOD:

All four lines rolling. For the first time since opening night, and maybe even into the pre-season, I thought all four of the Senators forward lines were on their A-game last night. I was especially impressed with the play of the Peter Schaefer-Antoine Vermette-Martin Havlat line. Even the fourth line made their presence felt. Getting over 6 and a half minutes was Brian McGrattan, by far his highest number this season, and he was not a liability out there. Previously, I had wondered why the team was using a roster spot on a guy who appeared to be pretty one dimensional and only used sparingly, especially when you have a guy like Denis Hamel sitting on the farm, but he had a good game.

Persisent skating through the neutral zone into the other team's end. Personally, in the previous four games, one of the most frustrating things has been the Sens inability to penetrate the opposition's zone. Often, the other team has lined up three players along their own blueline, and the Sens were forced to dump and chase. Not the case last night. With this team's speed and skill, hopefully this becomes the trend.

Dominik Hasek getting his 300th career win. Milestones like that don’t just fall out of the sky, so it’s nice that Hasek was able to achieve it in a Sens uniform. Let’s hope it won’t be the highlight of his run in Ottawa though. He made some big saves early in the game, before it was essentially over, that kept the Senators in it. I must admit though, having a top notch goalie between the pipes is taking some time to get used to. Previously, there was always a feeling of apprehension when the other team came in on odd man rushes or got on the powerplay, but with Hasek on the team, there’s a confidence. And you can see it in the play of the guys in front of him. They’re more willing to pinch and take risks because they know they have a world class goaltender who’ll likely bail them out on their side. Of course, this sense of security can be dangerous if they fall back on it too often, but for now, it’s an asset.

Brandon Bochenski getting his first NHL goal. It was just a matter of time. After Tuesday night’s win over the Habs, I said that Bochenski had turned the corner in his play, and that even though he failed to net a goal in that game, based on the way he played, it was going to happen sooner rather than later. I didn’t have to wait long. Besides his goal, Bochenski’s overall game was good as well. He was back to going hard to the net, something he did in that ultra-successful pre-season, and was working hard on the forecheck. At one point, he even beat out a Bruins’ defenceman to stop an icing call.

Bryan Smolinski getting his first goal of the season. I’ve been very hard on Smolinski this year, and justifiably so. He’s looked pretty mediocre on most nights, barely even making an impact. And whatever impact he was making was not positive. While there were still a few things I didn’t like last night, he was much better. He was passing the puck with a lot more confidence than previously, wasn’t making the mental errors in his own end, and was skating hard. I wonder how much of that can be attributed to Patick Eaves being put on that line. Often, when a young, hungry rookie comes up, his enthusiasm becomes contagious. For a veteran like Smolinski who often plays uninspired, perhaps rubbing elbows with a freshman gave him new life.

The penalty killing. One of the most improved parts of this team since Bryan Murray took over. Under Jacques, the PK was not good, but Murray has rejuvenated it with his concept of putting skilled playing out there in that situation. Last night, they killed off a 5-on-3 early on the game, when Boston could’ve put up a couple of goals and taken over the game, and if I had to point to one turning point for the entire night, it was then. After that, it seemed like the Bruins were deflated and without confidence. A big part of that PK, by the way, was…

Daniel Alfredsson. At this point it’s kind of redundant, but Alfie was fantastic yet again. While Jason Spezza is getting all the accolades, Alfredsson has been playing like a man possessed and is an early candidate for the Hart Trophy in my opinion. He really is the straw that stirs the Sens’ drink, and when he plays well, you can be pretty sure the team will be putting up a W. And so far this season, we haven’t had to worry about when he’s not on his game.

Wade Redden. Even though he hasn’t played poorly, Redden had struggled to find his game so far this year. Last night, he found it. Easily, his best game so far. He was moving the puck extremely well, both on even strength and on the powerplay, was solid in his own end, and was maybe the best blueliner at defending forwards who went to the net. In this new NHL, where defenceman have been impotent to stop net crashing, body positioning will take precedence over rough stuff, and that’s Redden’s forte.

Standing up for the skilled players. Once again, a Senator did not turn the other cheek. Hal Gill roughed up Martin Havlat behind the net after a whistle, throwing some shots to his chest and face, and Chris Neil wasted no time in stepping in to take care of business.

THE BAD:

Zdeno Chara’s close call. In the third period, Chara, on a breakaway, got a highstick in the face from Bruins’ rookie defenceman Andrew Alberts (who made a number of questionable plays that might make him a target the next time these teams play). It barely missed his eye. The whole visor debate has been driven into the ground, and I’ve already made my feelings on the matter clear, but it’s still a scary sight when you see a key player of your team go down with his hands to his face. It’s worth noting that with Wade Redden putting a visor on this year, Chara is the lone Sens blueliner who doesn’t wear a shield, so at least it’s getting better.

Martin Havlat throwing a kick at Hal Gill. Even though Neil stepped in and took care of Gill for his shots on Havlat, it was not pleasant to see Havlat kick at Gill before his savior arrived. “Mach 9” already has a rep around the league of being dirty, and there have been some incidents in the past (he got warned by the league for a kick at Eric Cairns and also highsticked Mark Recchi in a scene that led to the big brawl between the Sens and Flyers at the end of last season), and maybe he needs to be pulled aside by someone like Alfredsson and set straight before he does something really stupid and not only hurts himself but someone else.

The HNIC broadcast. I admit, I was wrong. I was happy when former Sens’ ‘tender Ron Tugnutt took over the Ottawa region color commentator job, and I heard he had a rough debut in the booth last week, but I wanted to reserve comment until I witnessed it myself. Yikes. It’s still early, and I’m sure he’ll get better, but it was not good. And the play by play man, Bruce Rainine (who?) was downright awful. It was so bad that I had to turn on the Team 1200 radio broadcast with ol’ reliables Dean and Gord at the start of the third period to get some relief. Thankfully, those two will do the A-Channel broadcasts.

THE OPPOSITION:

I picked the Bruins to win the Northeast, over the Sens, Leafs, and Habs, largely based on the offseason moves they made that I felt improved their standing. Last night did not make that prediction look very smart. It’s worth noting that Joe Thornton did not suit up, out with a back injury (I have him on my fantasy team, unfortunately), like most teams without their superstar, the Bruins are not the same without their captain. Not only is he their best player, he’s also the leader of the team, so the Sens did not beat the real Bruins. Still, the team we saw did not look like division champions. As I noted above, after they failed to score on their 5-on-3 in the first period, they looked discouraged and the Sens capitalized. You can really see how much better Thornton makes Glen Murray when “Jumbo Joe” is out of the line-up, as Murray was not a factor all night. Sergei Samsonov did have a good game, however, and former Sen Shawn McEachern seemed to step it up against his old team. It was Nick Boynton’s first game back, and it showed, as he looked a step slow most of the night. As well, Brian Leetch, who I thought was a great signing by the B’s, didn’t play like the same Brian Leetch who was the Leafs’ best defenceman in the 2004 playoffs, reaffirming (to me anyway) that he still had it. For those of you who’ve seen other Bruin games, has this been the trend for Leetch so far this season? Is he, perhaps, the next to follow Brett Hull? In nets, Andrew Raycroft started strong but was chased out by the Sens after the fourth goal. By that point, he was giving up juicy rebounds and generally not playing. After giving up the somewhat weak Smolinski goal, rookie Hannu Toivonen was downright sensational. He made some saves during a Sens 5-on-3 in the third that, had the game been close, could’ve easily been classified as gave saving. With Raycroft and he on their team, the Bruins look to be set in goal for a long time to come.

UP NEXT:

Vacation. The wacky NHL scheduling has the Sens not playing until next Thursday in Tampa Bay against the defending Stanley Cup champs. Obviously, that should be a test. The next night they're in Miami, when they face former Sens’ coach Jacques Martin and a few veterans who’ve burned Ottawa in the past. Oh, and maybe the best goalie in the world. The rest, though annoying as a fan, is probably good for the team, as it gives them a chance to fully heal Mike Fisher and Vaclav Varada, who are both expected to be back in the line-up. That means, of course, that two guys have to be sat. Expect Patrick Eaves to be sent back down to Bingo, and as for the other spot, that will be the debate over the next couple days.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Respect due


Brett Hull has apparently decided to call it a career.

I’ve already seen some lash out at Hull for the decision, calling him a quitter. I couldn’t disagree more. Eventually, every player has to “quit”. It takes a man to admit that the game has passed him by. It’s likely a whole lot easier to continue to collect paychecks and rest on your laurels. I admire Hull for not wanting to tarnish his name and reputation with a few years of less than flattering hockey. Either way he’s a first ballot Hall Of Famer, but it’s nice to someone care about their legacy (too bad the guy who coached him this season didn’t have the same perspective.)

Some might say the timing of the announcement is unfair to the Coyotes. Is it more fair that Hull takes up a roster spot, at a pretty hefty salary (in a time when every dollar counts), if he's not performing and/or doesn't have that same passion for the game that made him so great for almost 20 years? There is no right time for something like this, I suppose, but in October, when the season is still young, seems better than in, say, January.

As for his career, the numbers speak for themselves. 741 career goals, 3rd all-time in NHL history. 103 career playoff goals, 4th all-time. Eight-time 40+ goal scorer. For a guy who wasn’t even supposed to make a career as a pro hockey player, drafted in the sixth round, those are some pretty impressive achievements. But the most extraordinary thing Hull did over his career was something most thought impossible: he stepped out of the shadow of his legendary father Bobby. Sure, to a certain generation, he’ll always be “The Golden Jet”’s boy, but most of us know him not as Brett Hull, the son of Bobby Hull, but rather, Brett Hull, one of the greatest goal scorers to ever lace up a pair of skates.

It is somewhat unfortunate that Hull is wrapping up his career at a time when the game is seemingly enjoying its scoring renaissance. For years, Hull for one of the most vocal critics of the game during the dead puck era, always talking about ways to improve it. Now that it’s happen, he’s long longer able to participate.

I think we’ll miss his biting commentary on the game as much as the infamous slapshot from the slot that became his trademark. Whenever you wanted an interesting soundbite on hockey, you went to Brett Hull. Jeremy Roenick has sort of assumed that role in recent years, but I’ve always found comes off more contrived that Brett, who just seems to be speaking from the heart, as a guy who loves the game. Let’s hope he won’t be kept quiet for too long. If OLN wants to make their hockey coverage unique, offer a spot on their panel to Hull. I can guarantee he’ll make it worthwhile.

Thanks for the memories Brett.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

How good are the Vancouver Canucks?

I made a point of watching the entire Minnesota-Vancouver game on TSN Wednesday night for a couple of reasons.

The first was because I bought into all the media hype that the game would have playoff level intensity due to the supposed bad blood that still lingered between these teams from their tough seven game series in the second round of the 2003 playoffs. In that sense, it was a complete disappointment. Not only was it not even close to being comparable to playoff hockey, it was barely an intense regular season game. I can understand TSN promoting the game in this way, as it benefits them, but why did the rest of the media?

The other reason I wanted to see the game was to get a good look at the Canucks. I only saw bits and pieces of their Saturday night game on HNIC against the Oilers, and what I did see, I was not impressed with. Yet I saw many ‘Nucks fans talking about how they were pleased with their team’s play. So I figured I’d give ‘em a second chance.

Once again, another disappointment.

I realize that judging the fate of a team based on a single hockey game is not exactly a fair and accurate method, but if this was a window into the Vancouver Canucks, B.C. hockey fans should be worried. They looked unorganized, undisciplined, lacking motivation, and without much of a consistent work ethic from top to bottom.

Much has been made about this team’s depleted defence core. In the offseason, they lost Brent Sopel to the Islanders and Marek Malik to the Rangers. Malik never struck me as all that important, but he was a big body. The big loss was Sopel. Once the whipping boy of B.C., he had matured into one of their better two-way defencemen; solid in his own end and more than capable of contributing offensively. The fact they essentially let him go for nothing as a salary dump didn’t sit well with a lot of Vancouver residents, and rightfully so. They’ve plugged those holes with Steve McCarthy and Nolan Baumgartner.

But what it also means is that the remaining guys must carry the load. When Sami Salo is on your top defence pairing, and Bryan Allen is on your second, you might be in trouble. Last night, it sure looked like it.

Salo had a solid run in Ottawa, but was never able to stay healthy. Who knows if he was just snake bitten or it was a result of bad conditioning, but since heading out West, that seems to have been rectified, as Salo’s been mostly healthy. Still, paired with Mattias Ohlund, who might give his fellow countryman Mattias Normstrom a run for the “most underrated NHL defenceman” title, means Salo has to play a lot of minutes. I’m not convinced he’s capable of doing this night in and night out. So far this season he’s actually leading the team in average ice time at 26:35, and with five points thus far, seems to be holding his own. But can this last? Last night, he looked really good in the first period, pretty good in the second, and invisible in the third.

Bryan Allen, once a first round pick, is a real good #5 or #6 defenceman on most teams, but being asked to play 20 minutes a night with the Canucks also should be worrisome.

Of the new guys, Baumgartner impressed, but McCarthy looked downright awful, almost putting the put in his own net.

Up front, the Todd Bertuzzi-Brendan Morrison-Markus Naslund line has gotten the tag of the best in the NHL. On paper, it seems to be. But they did not look like it last night. Bertuzzi had a mostly dull and boring game, and still seems to be feeling the effects of the Steve Moore incident. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for why Bert doesn’t play with that same edge that made him one of the most dominant forwards in the league. He did get into a scrap, and the announcers noted that hopefully that would wake him up, but alas, no such thing occurred. Once back on the ice, he resumed his sleep inspiring play. Very few hits thrown, little aggression. As for Morrison, I would comment on him, but the truth is, most of the time, I barely noticed him out there.

The only one who I thought had a moderately good game was Naslund. He was creating almost all of the line’s chances himself, with seemingly little help from the other two, but with Minnesota’s tough defence, it wasn’t if he was going to be able to score goals himself without the other two doing something. Another thing I liked about Naslund’s game was his play in the Canucks’ zone. His offensive prowess gets tons of praise, but Naslund’s solid defensive play mostly goes unnoted by most pundits.

The alleged second line of the Sedin Twins and Anson Carter didn’t fare much better, with little offence produced from any of the three. It’s been said that if the Canucks are to take the next step as a team in the playoffs, they’ll need secondary scoring, and I assume that why’s Carter was brought in. I hope last night was just an aberration.

As for who I liked, I thought the Canucks best forward line was Matt Cooke-Richard Park-Ryan Kesler, but when looking at the stat sheet, discovered they went –2 as a line for the game. That might just be an indication of how insignificant the +/- stat is. At the very least, at least they seemed to actually have some emotional investment in the outcome of the game. Cooke was his usual self, banging and crashing and making things happen. He’s never had much finish, which makes me wonder why they don’t put him on a line with some people who do. Who would benefit from his work ethic. I remember he filled in for Bertuzzi on the big line when #44 was suspended, and fared pretty well. If the Sedins and Carter continue to struggle, then Marc Crawford might want to look into putting Cooke onto that line to at least provide some energy.

Richard Park was always a forward I liked, and he looked solid in Wednesday’s game. Kesler is not someone I’m all that aware of, but he played a decent game as well.

Beyond them, I actually went out of my way to try and see how Trevor Linden played. Not good. Has father time caught up with him, or is he still feeling the wrath of the year of hell that is being the NHLPA President during a work stoppage? Obviously I haven’t been following this team closely enough to have the answer, but it was almost sad how little of an impact he had in last night’s game. Once a top player in the NHL, Linden seems to have fallen into mediocracy. And why did he lose his “A”?

I have never been a big fan of Dan Cloutier. Never convinced he’s a legitimate number one goalie. In that sense, he’s been the Western Conference version of Patrick Lalime. But at least with Lalime, once he was exposed, the Sens cut bait and got a new ‘tender. The Canucks have stuck with Cloutier. I’ve never known whether to applaud their loyalty or criticize their stupidity. Part of it, I always assumed, was Brian Burke’s own stubbornness. He told everyone who would listen that Cloutier was a legitimate NHL starting goalie that to send him packing and get a new one would be admitting he was wrong. Not something he seems to be a fan of. But when Dave Nonis took over the Canucks GM job, he had a perfect opportunity to abandon the Dan Cloutier Plan and start fresh between the pipes. He did no such thing, instead signing him to a new contract.

Giving up six goals might make some fans of the team point the finger at Cloutier for last night’s loss, but the truth is, I don’t think he was at fault. He made several big saves that kept them in the game when they were playing dreadfully. A few of the late goals he gave up were not exactly highlight reel caliber, but by then, the game was over. The Canucks had played poorly for almost the entire game up to then, so even if Cloutier had made another game saving stop, it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference.

On the other side, Minnesota looked like a team possessed. Some have theorized that the new crackdown on obstruction, the emphasis on offence, and the rules that have attempted to minimize the effect of coaching on the game would hurt Minnesota as hard as any other team. I must admit, I did. I didn’t even pick them to make the playoffs. I had to eat a lot of crow last night. My first look at the Wild in the new NHL showed me that their demise has been greatly exaggerated. They’re a fast skating, good passing, consistent forechecking team with solid goaltending and, from one to six, a strong defence. They’ll definitely be in the mix in the Western Conference. I should have known better than to have counted out Jacques Lemaire.

As for the Canucks, it was just one game, and before I write them off as a contender, I probably should watch them a bit more. But with a national TV audience watching, they crapped the bed. The Western Conference appears to be wide open, and there are probably a half dozen teams that could take the title. The Canucks were at the top of most pundit’s lists as to who would win it, but after last night, they might want to do what I did and take a closer look.

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