Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Ottawa 4 Montreal 0

THE GOOD:

Ray Emery collects his first career shutout. Though he didn’t face a ton of action, Emery came through when called upon. There were points in the game where the Habs were pressuring hard but Emery made the big saves to keep them scoreless. Montreal wasn’t able to sustain their offense. What impresses me most about Ray Emery is his poise. You’d never know he’s a rookie based on how he is able to compose himself under pressure. It’s an especially surprising characteristic because one of the major knocks against Emery in the past has been his temper. When playing in junior, and later the AHL, “Rayzor” was as known for his fists as he was his play between the pipes. Clearly, there’s been a maturation. Much has been made about how the Sens are ill-equipped for when the inevitable Dominik Hasek injury occurs, but the truth is, though it certainly would not be the ideal scenario, I would be comfortable with Emery playing goal. He’s proven himself against some good teams, and though you never know how someone will fare in that spot until they’re put into it (see Miikka Kiprusoff), based on how he’s played this season, Emery doesn’t look, to me, like the liability everyone else implies he is. In addition to getting the first shutout of his NHL career, Emery sets a league record for the longest streak of undefeated games by a goalie to start his career.

Chris Neil and Mike Fisher’s work ethic. It was nice to see Neil back with the team, and he and his good friend Fisher picked up right where they left off. This time playing alongside Vaclav Varada, who earned the upgrade with his strong consistent play over the last three games, they continued to do exactly what the coach requires from them: forechecking hard, finishing their checks, and winning battles along the boards.

The play of the defence as a group. Since Wade Redden has gone down, they have, with the exception of one player, elevated their play and picked up the slack. That’s required when a major piece of the puzzle goes down, however, it doesn’t happen with the regularity that you’d think. It forces players to take on bigger roles than they’re used to, and often, they can’t handle it. I’m impressed that, for the most part, this group has proven they’re capable of it.

THE BAD:

Martin Havlat goes down with an injury. After getting a small monkey off his back by scoring his first goal in six games, Havlat went hard into the boards a few shifts later. He was forced to leave the game and has been diagnosed with a dislocated shoulder. “Mach 9” has already missed six games this season due to the suspension and a minor groin injury. There is no indication on how long he’ll be out of action. Apparently, dislocated shoulder injuries are difficult to timetable so he could be back in a few weeks. Worst case scenario, however, has him out a few months. Keep your fingers crossed.

Antoine Vermette’s bad penalties. If Bryan Murray was trying to motivate the Ashton Kutcher lookalike by calling him out in the media, he should consider the attempt unsuccessful. Vermette was demoted from the second line, where he was centering Peter Schaefer and Havlat, and returned back to the fourth unit. A line he’s no stranger to since that’s where he started the season. At the time, he complained openly to the press about his dissatisfaction with his role. He wanted to be a bigger contributor. However, it wasn’t his pleas in the papers that got him promoted, but rather his consistent play. He got away from that though, and so he again finds himself playing limited minutes in a role he’s not happy with. The only way he’ll get back up the line-up is by improving his play. Taking three penalties is not the way to do it. The last one was a pretty bad call, however, the first two, both in the first period, were just a result of poor play.

Chris Phillips caught out of position. I think we can officially say Phillips is in a rut of sorts, because he’s hasn’t been playing like the solid blueliner that got him on Team Canada’s shortlist for the Olympics. There were at least two instances last night where Phillips’ poor positioning lead to rushes for the Canadiens.

THE OPPOSITION:

Last night was not the right game to judge the merits of the Canadiens, as they were without some major pieces. In addition to no Alexei Kovalev, their blueline was in shambles. Sheldon Souray’s out with an injury, Andrei Markov, who’s probably been their best defenceman this season, is suspended for three games after allegedly shoving one of the linesman after their Saturday night OT loss to the Leafs, and Mike Komisarek went back home to tend to a personal matter. They tried to call up Ron Hainsey but he didn’t clear waivers and was claimed by the Blue Jackets. As a result, they were forced to play with five defenceman, with their fifth, Jean-Phillipe Cote, playing his first career game. If anything though, it exposed their lack of depth at D, and makes me wonder why they chose a goalie with their 5th overall pick when there were some aces at that position available.

With that kind of situation, defencemen like Mathieu Dandenault and Craig Rivet were forced to log minutes they’re simply not able to (almost 29 for Dandenault and a little over that number for Rivet). It’s no wonder they didn’t win. I’m sure some Habs fans will lament about the ineffectiveness of their D, but I wouldn’t panic too much.

Where I would worry, however, is up front. Even without Kovalev, they still have enough forwards who, in theory, should be able to score some goals. It’s not happening. Their forwards are all in a terrible slump. Chief among them is former Sen Radek Bonk, who holds the franchise record for the most games played in an Ottawa uniform. He was brought to Montreal with the role of the third line checking center, which is a good position for Bonk to play. He was asked to be a number one center in Ottawa, and we all saw how that went. However, at almost $3 million a year, that’s a pretty hefty price to pay a guy. I imagine GM Bob Gainey thought he’d get some offence from Bonk. It hasn’t happened. He remains goalless. In spite of that, though, I felt like he had a pretty solid game last night, as he and linemate Jan Bulis were generating some chances for the Habs. It was the people who are expected to score that didn’t bring their A game with any consistency. The likes of Saku Koivu, Mike Ribeiro, Michael Ryder, Richard Zednik, and rookie Alexander Perezhogin, who’s cooled off considerably after starting the year on a tear. If the Habs are to stay neck-and-neck with Ottawa in the standings, they’ll need these guys to turn it around as much as they do from the much maligned former Senator.

UP NEXT:

A familiar face, as the Senators travel to Boston to face the Bruins for the fourth time this season. So far, Ottawa owned them, going 3-0. Based on what’s coming out of the Boston media, and what Bruins fans are saying, the team looks to be quite close to a complete overhaul. They’ve already started moving small pieces, first trading away Dave Scatchard last week to get defenceman David Tanabe, and today waiving both former Senator Shawn McEachern and toughguy Colton Orr. McEachern, who actually started the season with the opportunity to play alongside Joe Thornton and Glen Murray, has been under fire all season for his bad play so it’s no surprise they’ve cut bait with him. Orr, however, has to be somewhat perplexing. Whenever he was inserted into the line-up, Orr did his job very well, and has already made a name for himself in the league with a handful of impressive performances when dropping the gloves.

The talk is that head coach Mike Sullivan’s head is on the chopping block, and it’s only a matter of when, not if, he’ll be the first bench boss to be handed a pink slip this season. But based on the fact that GM Mike O’Connell has now moved two of his offseason acquisitions in trades, essentially admitting he was wrong, it seems to be his job should be in just as much jeopardy as the coach he hired.

How all this turmoil will affect the Thursday night game remains to be seen. One school of thought would be that with their backs against the wall, the Bruins will be a dangerous club. They still have the horses to be a competitive team. However, it’s probably more likely that they’re spinning their wheels until the foreseeable shakeup takes place. On paper, it should be a cakewalk for Ottawa.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Ottawa 4 Boston 2

THE GOOD:

The Big Line. Though there had still been points put up, the truth is that for the last five or so games, the still unnamed first line of Dany Heatley-Jason Spezza-Daniel Alfredsson had been struggling. They certainly didn’t look to be clicking to the same degree that they did early on when the combo was first formed. Last night, it was a blast from the past as they were finding each other with their passes the way they were previously. Spezza, who had two goals, had an especially good game, and there were very few of the lazy passes that had become his trademark over the last couple weeks. As well, Dany Heatley was playing with an extra jump in his stride. Like Spezza, he’s often been guilty of trying to do too much as of late, and we’ve seen him attempt to stickhandle through three opposing players to disastrous results. The one consistent through this, mind you, was the play of captain Alfredsson.

Zdeno Chara. Played 30 minutes, threw a handful of big hits, and was the most dominant player on either team, including the Big Line.

Andrej Meszaros. Though he had his first NHL goal taken away from him, and given instead to Spezza, I thought Meszaros had a tremendous game. He logged a ton of ice time, and got time playing in both special teams situations, and did not look a bit out of place.

Christoph Schubert. Though he’s still only played a handful of NHL games, the big German defender gets better with each outing. I think his first ever goal on Tuesday against Carolina gave Schubert a lot of confidence because he’s been playing with great poise ever since.

Mike Fisher standing up to Hal Gill. Gill was giving Fisher quite a bit of punishment when, late in the third, Fish was standing in front of the net. Basically, doing his job. Gill was crosschecking him to the back repeatedly (I thought they were eliminating this from the game), and Fisher finally put him on his ass. He took a penalty, but it was a good one to take.

Brian McGratton. Though, obviously, his role on the Sens is to drop the gloves and be an enforcer, McGratton’s progression as a solid hockey player has been a welcome surprise. He won’t be playing on one of the scoring lines anytime soon, but he’s a good skater for his size and always finishes his checks.

THE BAD:

Antoine Vermette. Vermette was benched during the last portion of the Islanders game and found himself back on the fourth line last night. Even still, he got a good amount of opportunities to play and did not do anything to motivate Bryan Murray to move him back up to a scoring line. Like Vaclav Varada before him, Vermette complained about his role on the team when he started the season on this line. However, he eventually played his way up the line-up. However, he doesn’t have enough of a track record that he can afford to get away from what got him on the second line in the first place.

Chris Phillips gets burned against. After being made to look foolish on Tuesday night by Eric Staal, Phillips was exposed again, this time by Brad Isbister on Boston’s first goal. Getting humiliated by one of the top scorers in the league isn’t anything to be embarrassed about, but when Brad Isbister sons you, you might want to rethink some things.

Don Cherry. Who’s “Daniel Andersson” Grapes?

THE OPPOSITION:

To put it simply, the Boston Bruins seem like a team without an identity. They have some good players, and a few great ones (including one, Glen Murray, who was out of the line-up for this game) but with all that turnover in talent, it could just be that the Bruins are lacking the chemistry to compete with a team like Ottawa who is firing on all cylinders right now. They likely had a gameplan to shut down the Sens, and it was probably similar to the one they employed the last time these teams played and the Senators stunk up the first period, but when Jason Spezza scored 34 seconds into the game, all that went out the window. Playing the Senators right now is hard enough. Trying to come from behind is almost an impossible task at this point.

A lot of the reason for why the team is struggling is the players who played great last season are underperforming. Though he can’t be faulted for any of the four goals Ottawa scored, goaltender Andrew Raycroft didn’t look much like the guy who carried them the last time around on his way to winning the Calder. He was giving up juicy rebounds all night long. If the Bruins are to regain their old position atop the Northeast, they’ll need Raycroft to find his game. As well, another sophomore, Patrice Bergeron is struggling to perform up to the standard he set with his strong rookie season. This, in particular, is surprising to me. I absolutely thought Bergeron would like Spezza in that he’d benefit from the year off., and the experience he gained with playing with the Team Canada club that won the World Juniors. It doesn’t look like he did.

To compound that problem, it looks as if the players they’ve brought in to fill the holes that were created when they lost all that talent on the free agent aren’t living up to their expectations. Alexei Zhamnov was beyond invisible Saturday night.

All these things will need to be corrected if Boston intends to be a playoff team. The way the Senators are playing, and the way Montreal was up to a few weeks ago, it's doubtful the Bruins will make my pre-season predictions not look retarded by winning the division, but they can still be in the mix if they get their house in order. That might mean a shakeup behind the bench.

UP NEXT:

After playing games on back-to-back nights, the Senators get a little break. Montreal comes to Ottawa for a Tuesday night game. The Habs, after starting the season almost as strongly as the Senators, have appeared to hit a rut. Part of that could be the fact they’re playing without sniper Alexei Kovalev. It is ironic that when Jose Theodorehas found his game the rest of the team isn’t playing as well in front of him. The last time they played, Ottawa dominated the Habs but weren’t able to solve Theodore and so the game went to OT. Of course, we all remember how it ended. They’ll be coming here with a sour taste in their mouth based on the way they lost Saturday night against the Leafs, so the Senators will have to deal with an extremely motivated team, but if Ottawa plays the way they did Saturday night I can't see the Canadiens coming out with two points. For the Senators, Chris Neil will be back in the line-up for the game, so with the exception of Wade Redden, they'll be back to their normal look.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Ottawa 6 NY Islanders 2

With no local TV broadcasting the game, I had to rely on the Team 1200’s radio broadcast for my Sens fix this afternoon. Based on their descriptions, as well as reading what those who did see the contest had to say, it seems like it was status quo as far as what the Senators have been doing to other teams this year. The fact they did it without three regulars, though, makes it unique.

The overwhelming positive that Senators fans should take from the game is the team’s ability to step up when facing adversity. Minus Wade Redden, Martin Havlat, and Chris Neil, head coach Bryan Murray juggled his lines slightly and got some surprisingly results. The most surprising of which was the success of the Peter Schaefer-Bryan Smolinski-Vaclav Varada trio.

Varada, who was named the game’s first star by the radio crew, was said to have his best game of the season thus far. He collected three points (a goal and two assists) and played nearly 14 minutes. It’s interesting to note that Varada played on the right side. Since coming to Ottawa, he’s been, primarily, a left winger, but played some right wing in Buffalo during his tenure there. Having a versatile winger who can play either side is a big bonus to the team and will likely come in especially handy down the line whenever the next time the Senators run into some injury troubles.

Having such a big game, and being recognized for it, will hopefully help Varada turn the corner and play with more consistency. The Sens aren’t going to get three points from him every night, nor is that his role on the team, but they do need Varada to get back to doing what he does best: being a pest who stirs things up and makes life hell for members of the opposition. That can be difficult to do when you’re only getting five or six minutes of ice time a night as part of the fourth line, but regardless, he has to be able to perform when called upon.

It was also a welcome surprise that the powerplay, which went 3 for 5, was so successful. That has been their one Achilles’ heel from game to game this season, and those who read this blog regularly know it’s been a personal annoyance of mine, but this recent stretch has seen a marked improvement. They’ve now scored with the man advantage in six straight games. The fact it was so dangerous yesterday against the Islanders without Redden, who plays the role of the quarterback, either says a lot about their ability to step it up or how ineffective the Isles’ penalty killing is.

With the win, and Detroit’s loss a few hours later in Anaheim, the Sens have now assumed the spot at the top of the NHL standings.

UP NEXT:

No rest for the Senators, as they’re back in Ottawa tonight for a match-up with the struggling Boston Bruins. The Bruins are a team that a lot of people, myself very much included, had pegged to be atop the Eastern Conference, and yet here we are 23 games into their season, and they’re three games under .500. With 21 points in 23 games, they’re currently on the outside looking as far as playoff standings. It did look like they had maybe turned things around with a big 5-1 win Wednesday night in Toronto, but last night, they were beaten on home ice by the Flyers. They showed some resiliency but coming back from a 2-0 deficit to actually take the lead, but the Flyers proved to be too much for them.

Watching the highlights, it looked like Andrew Raycroft was struggling in nets, so don’t be surprised if Finnish rookie Hannu Toivonen. There is no word about who will get the nod for the Senators between the pipes. So far this season, it’s been Murray’s practice not to play Dominik Hasek in games that occur on back-to-back nights, but we’ll see. Chris Neil is still tending to family matters in Toronto (the funeral is tomorrow, and coach Murray, Mike Fisher, Wade Redden, GM John Muckler, and Roy Mlakarwill be representing the organization at the service) and Redden isn’t expected back until next week. Martin Havlat might be a game time call, but early indications are that he’s still not ready to return to action. Meaning, the Senators depth will be put to the test yet again.

The Senators have dominated the Bruins in the previous two games between the two clubs this season, but that was when their line-up was healthy. It might be a different story now. Boston will be looking for blood, as a win over the league’s best team in their own building would soften the blow that has been their drought. It might be worth noting, however, that the Senators have yet to lose on a Saturday night.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Finally, some adversity

We will now see what the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators are made of, some will say.

Up to this point, their season has been, comparatively speaking, pretty easy, the challenging schedule notwithstanding. While other teams have had to deal with playing without their captain for a month or both of their goalies for even longer, the biggest hurdle the Sens have had to leap has been the five games they were without sniper Martin Havlat when he was serving the suspension that comes with kicking another player in the balls.

But for the next few games, they will be without several key players, and as a result, their depth will be put to the test. In a freak accident, Wade Redden was injured during yesterday’s practice. According to reports, it occurred during a one-on-one drill Redden was doing with Mike Fisher. The diagnosis is a sprained knee, and Redden will be out at least a week. The aforementioned Havlat pulled his groin during Tuesday’s 5-3 win over the Hurricanes, and though listed at day-to-day, won’t be in the line-up for tomorrow afternoon’s U.S. Thanksgiving tilt with the New York Islanders. And Chris Neil has left the team indefinitely to deal with the tragic death of his mother Bonnie. Visitation will be occurring over the next couple of days and the service will be on Saturday, but with situations like this, there are no timetables as to when he’ll be back.

The Senators did get some good news as it looks like Bryan Smolinski will be back Friday. He missed Tuesday’s game with a chest contusion (I incorrectly said it was a shoulder injury).

How the Senators will deal with these holes will be interesting to observe. Though most people talk about the behemoth that is Zdeno Chara, and rightfully so because Big Z is having another stellar season, Redden has quietly stepped up his play this month and, as of this morning, is fourth in defenceman scoring with 21 points in 19 games. Redden quarterback’s the powerplay, which has been the one consistent chink in the armor this season, and though you might say the struggling PP could use a shakeup, Wade Redden has been pretty solid in that role. Most of the onus for the powerplay’s ineffectiveness lies elsewhere. Jason Spezza’s sloppy passes that often lead to turnovers, Dany Heatley’s unwillingness to stand in front of the net and pay the price, captain Daniel Alfredsson’s inability to actually hit the net with his cannon of a shot. Take your pick. But if you’re going to point the finger somewhere, Redden shouldn’t be near the top of that list.

In the past, whenever the Senators played without Redden, they struggled horribly. And that was when his development as a defenceman wasn’t nearly as far along as it is now. So losing him for a week, and maybe even longer, will hurt the team immensely. They are fortunate enough to have good depth at defence, and the guy who will step in and take his spot, Christoph Schubert, is probably a fifth defenceman on a lot of other NHL teams, but he doesn’t bring all the tools that Redden does.

They’ve played without Havlat already this year, and won, but still, I’m sure if it was up to the Senators, they’d have “Mach 9” in the line-up. Even though his scoring has run hot and cold this year, Havlat is always a threat on the ice and, playing alongside Antoine Vermette and Peter Schaefer, has formed a very dangerous second line.

And obviously, Chris Neil’s absence is significant. He’s having a career season, and has grown into an excellent third line forward. He knows his role and plays it excellently, never thinking twice about going to the net and getting his roughed up by defenceman (and, if they’re playing the Maple Leafs, Ed Belfour).

Denis Hamel, who I thought was decent though somewhat unspectacular in his season debut Tuesday night, will stay up with the Senators, but there is still a spot to fill and a few options to chose from. The obvious, I would think, is Patrick Eaves. Eaves got better with every game he played earlier in the year when he was called up, and didn’t look at all out of place playing alongside Alfredsson and Smolinski on the second line. However, if they want a veteran presence, they could call up Steve Martins, who’s been very steady down in Binghamton. And let’s not forget Brandon Bochenski. Even though he fell out of favor in Ottawa due his lack of scoring on the top line, he’s still a talented player and has been on fire since being sent down to the AHL. If they want some scoring, maybe he gets the nod.

Whoever does get the call will have the difficult task of leaving a struggling Bingo team, who are near the bottom of the AHL standing, and stepping into a club that is essentially firing on all cylinders. That’s a lot of pressure and little room for error.

Even though, on paper, the schedule for the next week or so for the Ottawa Senators isn’t particularly difficult, with games against the Islanders, Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, and then Boston again, they’ll have some obstacles to overcome.

Should be interesting.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ottawa 5 Carolina 3

THE GOOD:

Finally beating the Carolina Hurricanes. It wasn’t the prettiest victory, to say the least, but regardless, a win is a win is a win. Going 0-3 against what most people consider to be the second best team in their conference would not have been an ideal spot for the team to be in. It’s somewhat ironic, though, that their lone win in the three games was, without question, their worst outing.

Mike Fisher. In the late afternoon, Chris Neil was given devastating news, as he was told his mother Bonnie had been killed in a car accident north of Toronto. Obviously, he traveled back to be with his family in this difficult time and missed the game. The team talked about winning the game for Chris, who wears his heart on his sleeve and is the guts and glory of the Senators. Fisher, who is Neil’s closest friend on the club, stepped up and had one of his biggest games of the year, collecting a shorthanded goal as well as two assists. Fisher took Neil’s spot on the top powerplay unit, taking on the less-than-glamorous role of standing in front of the net and making life difficult for the opposing goalie. He was excellent in said role. Fisher’s emergence as this team’s most reliable secondary forward since coming back from the injury is a welcome surprise.

Christoph Schubert. The big German was put into a difficult spot last night, and responded as well as anyone could’ve expected. With Neil flying back home to deal with the tragedy at the last minute, the club didn’t have time to fly in a player from Binghamton to fill the hole (they had already called up Denis Hamel due to Bryan Smolinski’s shoulder injury), and so they had to make due with using a defencemen on the fourth forward line. This is probably when John Muckler’s policy on not carrying alternates looks misguided. But considering the circumstances, I thought Schubert performed excellently. He scored his first ever NHL goal and was effective all night banging bodies along the boards and behind the net. Schubert impresses me every time he gets in the lineup.

In the third period, the play of the Big Line. They struggled early, but when Carolina evened the score at 3-3 a little more than a minute into the third, the still-unnamed trio (yes, I refuse to acknowledge that absurd name the Ottawa Citizen’s contest birthed) elevated their game as a line. They scored a goal three minutes later, and had a handful of chances to light the lamp throughout the rest of the game.

Chris Kelly. With the depleted line-up, which was compounded by Martin Havlat going down with an injury in the first period, Bryan Murray was forced to give more ice time to people who otherwise don’t see that much shine, and “Battleship Kelly” was among them. He played nearly 14 minutes, was +2, and won some big faceoffs.

The Hurricanes asking for a moment of silence before the game for Bonnie Neil. It was an incredibly classy move on behalf of the organization.

THE BAD:

Chris Phillips. It wasn’t a banner night for most of the defencemen (believe it or not, Brian Pothier was one of the best Ottawa rearguards), but #4 had a particularly bad game. On Carolina’s first goal, he was outmuscled by Eric Staal, made to look pretty foolish, and on their second, he was mostly standing around, as it was his man (Erik Cole) who made the pass into the slot that resulted in the score. He was routinely knocked off the puck in the Senators zone and wasn’t making his usual strong outlet passes. As well, Phillips took two of the team’s five penalties, both of which were holding calls and the result of poor positioning on Phillips’ part. I’ve talked about how if Jason Spezza wants to be on Team Canada in Turin, he needs to round out his game, and the same goes for Phillips. He’s typically been a slow starter his entire pro career, so average play early in the season isn’t anything new, but the Senators will need more from him if they want to maintain their spot atop the Eastern Conference.

For the first two periods, the play of the Big Line. While they did kick it up in the third, for the first 40 or so minutes, the much heralded trio were non-factors. I’ll cut Alfie a bit of slack because at least he was working hard (as usual) and trying to create chances. The other two, however, were essentially invisible out there.

Dominik Hasek. I don’t know what it was, but Hasek looked awkward for the majority of the game. Now, saying Dominik Hasek looked awkward in nets is, I know, sort of like announcing the sky is blue. But he looked awkward even by Hasek standards. He didn’t demonstrate his famous mobility and was out of position on a lot shot. In addition, there were even a few instances where he appeared to be caught sleeping and was surpised by some long shots. For a goalie who keeps himself in the game by attacking the puck even when it looks like a bad play, and who bangs his goal stick on the ice to encourage his team, that was strange to see.

The powerplay. I might as well just copy ‘n paste all the times I’ve talked about how poor the PP was here, because it was more of the same.

The officiating. For the second straight game, the Senators were the victim of awful, inconsistent refereeing. This time, however, it went both ways. Calls were being missed all over the place, while a few of the penalties that did get whistled down were questionable to say the least. I hate to sound like Tom Benjamin, but this is becoming an alarming trend.

Diving. The last time these teams played each other Raleigh, you’d think the ice was a swimming pool based on all the bodies that dove into it, and unfortunately, last night wasn’t much better. The last time around, both teams were guilty of it, and according to the broadcast crew, the NHL sent some warning calls to a few Hurricanes (including goalie Martin Gerber) to let them know this would not be tolerated, but I guess the rest of their teammates didn’t get the message.

The blatant knee-on-knee hit on Schubert by Mike Commodore. I don’t know if it was intentional, but the NHL has to do a better job of taking these out of the game. If that means strict suspensions, then so be it.

The attendance. I would think a game between the Eastern Conference’s top two teams would get some hype locally, resulting in interest from even the casual hockey fan and thus more butts in the seats of the . Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. While there were more people there then the last time these two teams met about a month ago, there were still an announced five thousand empty seats. And with the way the NHL and some struggling franchises are padding their numbers, it could very well have been a few thousand more than that.

THE OPPOSITION:

The ‘Canes played handicap last night, as some significant pieces of their puzzles (Rod Brind’Amour, Josef Vasciek, Nicolas Wallin among them), but still, I thought as a whole looked good in spite of it. Their forwards were skating strong all night and were relentless on the forecheck. They’re really a different team when behind versus when they have the lead. We saw, when these two teams played in Ottawa a few weeks back, that Carolina can shut down their opposition when they’re up, but last night, down two goals less than 10 minutes into the game, they were forced to go on the offensive. Ottawa wasn’t prepared for this, it seems, because for the rest of the period Carolina dominated and could’ve been up a few goals when the buzzer sounded to start the intermission if a bounce here or there went their way. The difference between this game, and the two others, as I saw it, was Martin Gerber. He was the impact player in both of those other games, largely stealing the two points for his team, and he just wasn’t as sharp last night. Make no mistake, he didn’t lose them the game, but the big saves he was making previously went in last night. Ottawa scored four goals despite playing a pretty lackluster game.

The two Eric(k)s, Cole and Staal, both had dominant outings. Staal astounds me every time I see Carolina play, and not just for what he can do offensively. He’s incredibly strong on the puck and for someone of his size can skate like the wind. We saw on the goal he scored to put the Hurricanes on the board how good he moves and when Chris Phillips, a pretty powerful defenceman, gets steamrolled like that, you have to give it up.

UP NEXT:

Ottawa gets a few days off before traveling Northward to play the New York Islanders in a rare afternoon affair, this time due to U.S. Thanksgiving. The puck drops at 2PM. In their only contest thus far, the Senators manhandled the Isles. While Ottawa looked like an elite team, New York resembled more of a pretender than a playoff team. However, since then, they seemed to have turned the corner and established some momentum, having collected 12 points in their last 10 games to go a game above .500. The Sens might be without three of their regular forwards. In today’s local newspaper, Bryan Smolinski says he thinks he’ll be ready by Friday, but it’s still up in the air. We don’t know when Chris Neil will be back with the team, and it’s not something you want to rush if he’s not up to it. And the severity of Martin Havlat’s injury remains unknown. If all three are out, we’ll likely see Hamel stay up as well as a few forwards from Bingo join the team, though some thought has to be given to keeping Schubert up front given how well he played.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Putting things in perspective

Last night I went to a friends house to watch the Nashville-Detroit game. I figured, with two of the top teams in the Western Conference facing off, it would be a night of entertaining and exciting hockey.

Instead, I witnessed one of the scariest moments I’ve ever seen in all my years of watching the sport.

Jiri Fischer almost died on the Red Wings bench after having suffered a seizure, and even though he’s now listed in stable condition, he’s still not out of the woods as far as his long term health as well as his future in hockey.

Watching it live, it was difficult to follow what was happening. Obviously, we knew something out of the ordinary had occurred, but the severity of it wasn’t clear until we saw the urgency in which Wings captain Steve Yzerman and Kris Draper rushed to get the stretcher to the bench. Then it was apparent this was very, very bad.

Now, some 12 hours later, having seen all the highlights, including the medical staff basically restarting his heart right there on the spot, I’m just thankful it didn’t end tragically.

After the incident I, and I’m sure many of you, saw this quote from Fischer in a few stories, talking about his irregular heart condition back in 2002:

"I wasn't scared about the abnormality," Fischer said. "But I was scared about not playing hockey again. That was a shock for me."

While, in hindsight, Fischer may look careless as far as his own well being, it’s just another example of how important playing this game is to these guys.

This game. Let’s not forget, though, that that’s all it is.

Last night made it pretty clear for me.

Monday, November 21, 2005

This just in: winning = $

From today's Ottawa Sun

After sizzling sales Saturday -- when the Senators put single-game tickets for the second half of the season on sale -- Senators president Roy Mlakar said the club is on pace to break its single-season attendance mark.

"We're on target to sell out 31 of our 41 home games right now," said Mlakar, "and that can only get better. We'll beat the attendance record."

The Senators single-season attendance mark is 729,515 (an average of 17,793) in the 2000-2001 season in what was then the 18,500-seat Corel Centre.

With the capacity boosted by making more tickets available in the suites, the Senators have averaged 19,220 through 11 home games this season.

That translates into total attendance in the 788,000-range. Saturday's strong sales -- there were 250 people in line when the doors opened -- indicate the strong support at the gate should continue.

The article notes that the corporate backing is still not at the level the team would like, but you have to think, if they keep winning, even those tight wads will be won over.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Ottawa 5 New Jersey 4

THE GOOD:

Vaclav Varada stepping up when given the opportunity. Last night was, without a doubt, Varada’s best game of the season. He’s had a few where he played well in spurts, which, from a fourth liner, is about all you can expect. But when Bryan Smolinski went down in the first with a shoulder injury and Mike Fisher moved over from left wing to center that line, Varada was put into a position to show and prove. He has talked endlessly in the local media about wanting more ice time, and how he can’t be a productive member of the team with 5 minutes of ice time. He delivered. He was skating hard, finishing his checks, generating more chances that at any other time this season, and being the pest that he’s expected to be. In registering five shots on goal and getting the most ice time of the year in almost 10 minutes, let’s hope he’s turned a corner and can be this effective on a consistent basis. Varada definitely made a case for a more prominent role on the club, and if Smolinski’s injury keeps him out of the line-up for an extended period of time, he might have even more opportunities to show that he’s still important to the Senators.

Chris Neil’s powerplay goal. The coaching staff needs to show the clip of this on a loop to the entire team at the next video session, because it was exactly what they need to be doing. Was it pretty? No. Flashy? Not at all. But it was a blue collar goal that was the result of hard work and a second effort. Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley should pay close attention and follow the lead of Neil sometimes. Wow, there’s a sentence I wouldn’t have thought I’d be typing three months ago.

Mike Fisher. It’s sort of become like praising the game of Daniel Alfredsson – redundant – but Mike Fisher continues to be the most consistent secondary tool the Senators have. With two goals, over 20 minutes of ice time, and a +3 rating, Fisher was, I thought, the best player on either team last night.

Brian McGrattan’s first NHL goal. “Gratts”, as he’s since become known in the area, has filed a void and played a role on this team that, though it’s not the kind of spot that will get him and his line a flashy nickname, it’s an important one nonetheless. The ovation the Corel Centre crowd gave him when the P.A. man announced the goal showed just how appreciative they are of his work.

Timely saves from Ray Emery. While outsiders still talk about how when Dominik Hasek goes down with the inevitable crippling injury, the Senators will be screwed, Emery remains on top of his game. Four goals won’t be great for his GAA, but he made a dozen big stops, including about five in the first 10 minutes of the first period alone. None of the goals were what I would classify as bad.

Taking hold of first place in the Northeast. Previously I talked about how the Habs winning streak was a good thing, because it kept the Sens in second place and with something to shoot for, but even if it’s only temporary, I like the look of them finally a top the division and conference.

THE BAD:

Undisciplined play, especially in the third period. Without question, some of it has to be chalked up to poor, inconsistent officiating, but as a team, the Senators need to know better and use their head. In the third period alone, they gave the Devils five powerplay opportunities, and they cashed in on one. One of which was an awful delay of game penalty that Wade Redden took in the last minute of the game. At that point, New Jersey had seized the momentum with the last two goals and were pressing hard (or, as hard as the New Jersey Devils can). I’m alright with some penalties, but shooting the puck over the glass isn’t one of them. Yeah, I know, it’s a new rule, and a pretty dumb one at that, but Wade Redden is a veteran by now, a leader on this team, and should know better. Back to the referees, they were absolutely brutal, missing calls on both sides all night long, with the most obvious being a hit from behind that, at the very least, was interference. No hand went up. Five seconds later, Chris Kelly got a tripping penalty.

Scoring a minute into the game. Please, for those of us who sometimes get in a little late, can you hold off on the goals?

CBC only showing the game in the Ottawa region. On paper, this had to be one of the worst HNIC line-ups in years. While some might’ve been interested in the Leafs-Thrashers game because of how the last one went, and the words the Leafs had for ATL coach Bob Hartley post game, as well perhaps as the fact that the Thrasher are, offensively, pretty good, you’re telling me, nationally, that was a better choice than Ottawa-New Jersey?

Brian Pothier’s pass that got Smolinski roasted. One of the main reason Pothier is in the line-up over Christoph Schubert, who is probably more sound in his own end and certainly a more physical presence, is because he’s a good puck mover and usually an excellent passer. But he owes “Smoke” an apology. He gave him a pass right in his skates, and as Smolinski looked down to kick it to his stick, Dan McGillis smoked him, no pun intended.

Dany Heatley’s inflated opinion of his stickhandling skills. I know a 17-point scoring streak will give a guy a big head and a bit of the Superman syndrome, but on more than one occasion, Heatley tried to stickhandle through three Devils players, even when the pass looked, to me anyway, to be available. Another case of trying to be too smooth.

THE OPPOSITION:

This was actually the first time I’d seen a full New Jersey game, and I realized, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Much like when I saw Minnesota absolutely shut down Vancouver a week into the season and came to the realization I was a complete idiot for thinking Jacques Lemaire would change his ways, I quickly figured out that, even in My NHL, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. So many of the Devils players have had the old mentality drilled into their head since they were drafted (I imagine Lou schools them on the trap as they’re putting on the red jersey and hat on the draft podium with the commish), and so to expect them to suddenly open up and adopt a run and gun exciting style is akin to asking

This isn’t to say they don’t have some explosive players. Guys like Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, and John Madden have always had speed for days, but you can see that they’re still in Old NHL mode. Even when down two goals in the third period, they didn’t throw caution the wind and go all out. Obviously, doing so would’ve in turn to lead to more chances for Ottawa, allowing them to possibly putting a dagger into their heart, but when the score’s 4-2 you have to do something. Luckily for them, Ottawa got into penalty trouble and allowed them to get back into the game without taking any big risks.

I do want to make note of the fact that Martin Brodeur looked quite un-Marty like. I’m not sure if this can simply be chalked up to the fact that he’s coming off an injury, or if he, once a major puck handler, is having a hard time adjusting to the new restrictions, but it whatever it was, it was noticeable all night. He wasn’t controlling rebounds the same way he usually does and wasn’t moving as well as he usually does.

I was impressed with their resiliency as a team to come back, but based on last night, I’m not sure I’d put New Jersey in the upper class of the East with Ottawa, Philadelphia, Carolina, and Montreal.

UP NEXT:

Though it’s still not even 20 games into the season, I don’t think it’d be out of line to suggest that Tuesday’s game in Carolina is the biggest of the year. The ‘Canes have handed the Senators two of their three losses so far, and so it’s probably safe to assume that they’ll want to end this little domination streak before it becomes a legitimate monkey on their back. Having been knocked out of the playoffs four of the past five seasons by the Maple Leafs, Sens fans know what it’s like to feel as if a certain team owns Ottawa. They don’t want that hanging over their heads all year. Anton Volchenkov went down at the end of the game, when it was basically chaos as New Jersey tried to tie the game, and had to be helped off the ice. As of the time of this post, there is no word about the severity of his injury, nor if Bryan Smolinski will be in the line-up either.

Friday, November 18, 2005

A Baby Sens related heads up

The Score will be broadcasting the game between the Toronto Marlies and the Binghamton Senators tonight at 7PM. The Marlies are, of course, the affiliate of the Maple Leafs, so it's probably the next best thing we can get to the Battle Of Ontario.

I'll be especially keen on seeing how Patrick Eaves and Brandon Bochenski look. Bochenski's been on fire since being sent down, collecting 11 points in six games, while Eaves has 9 in eight.

Ottawa 4 Florida 1

THE GOOD:

Turning around the powerplay. It feels good to be able to say that. I’d love to trump myself as a genius for coming up with the idea of putting Chris Neil back on the PP, but it was hardly all that innovative. Regardless, it worked. It would be foolish to credit Neil entirely with the rejuvenated powerplay, but he was certainly very effective in his role of standing in front of the net and giving Roberto Luongo a headache. But even beyond Neil, the team was world’s better with the man advantage last night than they’ve been over the last week or so. And a lot of the reason was simply going back to the basics. Moving the puck with speed, creating traffic, winning the battles for loose pucks along the boards. Stuff they teach in minor hockey. The Sens just weren’t doing that as of late, and it showed on the scoresheet at the end of every game how effective straying from simplicity fairs. It’s still not perfect, as I felt like some of the defencemen (*cough* Brian Pothier cough) were a little sloppy when handling the puck at the point, which resulted in some plays having to come out of the zone and be re-set up. But on the whole, it was a step in the right direction. I was a little worried that if they failed to score on the PP, but were still playing better when up a man, they would get discouraged and fall back into their old “let’s be the 80’s Oilers” habits, but alas, they stuck with it, and it paid off with two in the net.

Showing respect to Jacques Martin. I was a little worried how this would go. When listening to the local sports talk radio shows over the couple days leading up to last night’s contest, I heard a mixed bag of responses to the question about how to treat the former bench boss of the Sens upon arrival with his new club. Most, like me, felt like it was best to recognize that Jacques was a major part of this team’s growth from a the pretender of all pretenders to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the last few years of his reign. However, some said that because Jacques was, in their mind, the reason they lost all those times in the post season to the Leafs, paying him any sort of tribute would be ridiculous. And so I was glad to see which side won out last night. When a picture of Martin was put onto the scoreboard screen with the title “thanks for nine years”, the majority of the Corel Centre cheered.

Wade Redden. In addition to his three points (all assists), which gives Redden 17 points in as many games making him one of only four blueliners who have averaged a point a game, Redds was excellent in all facets of the game. He was a big part of why the powerplay turned around as he was moving the puck and quarterbacking the efforts excellently. As well, in his own zone, Redden was strong positionally.

Antoine Vermette. This may have been the best game Ashton Kutcher’s paparazzi decoy has had all season. He was strong on the forecheck and finishing his checks with authority. It was nice to see him get rewarded for his efforts with a late goal. With four goals in 17 games, Vermette probably isn’t producing as much as both he and the organization would like, but if he continues to play like this, and if the Peter Schaefer-Vermette-Martin Havlat line stays together playing the way they are as a trio, he’ll have a big year.

THE BAD:

The excitement of the game. If you were trying to lure a disgruntled fan who swore off the NHL due to the lockout back by showing them it really is a new NHL with a game, this wouldn’t have been the one to use. In fact, it was probably even a bad game by the standards of the old NHL.

Andrej Meszaros. I guess it was inevitable the 20-year-old rookie would have an off night. So far this season he’s been fantastic, and has maybe even leap frogged Brian Pothier on the depth already already, but he is still a rookie. Bad games are going to happen. Last night was one of ‘em. He was terrible in his coverage in the defensive zone, and on one play in particular, was standing around watching as the Panthers were swarming around the net.

Jason Spezza’s cutesy plays. In some way, I think that wonderful overtime winner against Montreal a few weeks back has been the worst thing for Spezza. It got him on all the highlight shows and made him the talk of the league for that little while. Since, Spezza has gone into overdrive with the “watch me undress this guy” moves, and they aren’t working. Nine times out of 10, they won’t. It just so happened that the goal against the Habs was the one occasion it did. I’m all for creativity on the ice, but there’s a time and place for it. And if you have an easier pass available, take it. It won’t give you a HON Candidate on SportsCentre, but it will be effective. And if you are going to do these kind of things, make damn sure you’re backchecking your ass off when they lead to turnovers. Spezza redeemed himself somewhat with a spectacular pass on one of Alfredsson’s goals, but this problem seems to be getting worse, not better.

THE OPPOSITION:

The 4-1 score is somewhat misleading because the game was not that one-sided. Florida did what Carolina I recommended on Tuesday but following Carolina’s path and making Ottawa play their game. No doubt about it, Jacques Martin did his thing. Florida took little chances, instead getting the first goal and sitting on that lead so hard Jacques Lemaire would’ve been proud. When Ottawa did have the puck, Florida stacked the blueline and made it nearly impossible for the Sens to enter their zone. It was more dump and chase action.

What you saw when Ottawa got their two goals to take the lead was what would’ve happened had Florida allowed Ottawa to play their game rather than vice versa. Florida was forced to start actually trying to score goals, and in the process, loosened their defence. It then turned into scoring chances galore for the Senators. It became abundantly clear that the Panthers are not suited for this new NHL where offence is at a premium. If they’re able to play like that every night, they might compete for a playoff spot, but with the new rules the way they are, I can’t see how teams won’t be able to bust it open. If Florida did not get that first goal last night, it would’ve been a whole different story. Of course, if Eric Cairns did not take that penalty late in the third, and then be stupid and yap too much to the referee to get a second penalty to go with it, it might’ve also been a different story as well, as it was only 1-1 at that point. Ottawa’ two powerplay goals put the game out of reach.

On an individual level, for Florida, I liked the games of young defencemen Mike Van Ryn (minus the time Alfredsson made a pylon out of him when the Sens were shorthanded) and Jay Bouwmeester as well as former Senator Sean Hill. They were a big part of why Ottawa’s forwards weren’t able to pounce on whatever rebounds Roberto Luongo gave up. Up front, few forwards were given much room to work, forced to play within the restrictive but effective system Martin used, so it’s difficult to judge how they were, but as far as play in both ends, Martin Gelinas and captain Olli Jokinen stood out to me. Of the few scoring chances the Panthers did have, Jokinen was almost always involved. He was around the net for most of the game, so it shouldn't be a surprise the one goal they netted was scored by Jokinen off a rebound the Sens didn't clear.

UP NEXT:

The homestand continues for the Senators as the New Jersey Devils come to the nation’s capital Saturday night. New Jersey has been an interesting team this season, hovering around .500 almost from the start. This is a franchise who’s winning pedigree over the last 10 years is second to none in the NHL. But when you have the kind of turnover in talent they do, losing their best two defencemen during that whole time, it’s bound to have an impact. Not having Patrick Elias, arguably their most gifted forward offensively, does hurt them. The Devils are the third lowest scoring team in the Eastern Conference, behind only the lowly Capitals and the ever exciting Panthers that are probably boarding a plane to leave now as I write. So I imagine they’ll employ a gameplan very similar to the one the Panthers used effectively for 40something minutes.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

This is My NHL?

If you’ve been reading this blog with any regularity, and especially the Senators game wrap-ups, you’d know I’m pretty enthusiastic about the “new NHL”. Though there certainly are some issues that make the game far from perfect, among them the inconsistent officiating as well as the fact defencemen have been rendered impotent around the net, as a whole, I like it. Maybe I’ve just tried to be a glass half full kinda guy for once, but I look at it like this: are the games better? Am I enjoying hockey more? The answer to both, on most nights, is yes. So I can’t be mad.

But last night, a part of this new NHL that I don’t like reared its ugly head. Sergei Fedorov was, essentially, sold to the Columbus Blue Jackets. A guy who I consider to be a first ballot Hall Of Famer, and one of the best hockey players of the last 15 years changed teams for what amounts to a firesale.

Every pundit and analyst has covered it the same way: this is the new NHL we live in. With the economic landscape having changed this past summer, it now looks like gone are the days of trades based on actual hockey matters and not simply contracts.

At least for both parties.

Oh, from Columbus’ end, it was a hockey trade. They’re one of the worst teams in the league, and with their franchise player out for an extended period of time, again, they needed a boost of some kind. For GM Doug MacLean, it was a no-brainer. Those who criticize the trade need to understand one thing, I think: he is on his last lifeline. This will be the Jackets’ fifth year in the NHL, and they have yet to make the playoffs. In spite of this, Columbus as a market has supported this team extraordinarily well considering the on-ice product hasn’t been all that good. How much of that is because they’re the only game in town as far as the major four pro sports, who knows, but it won’t sustain itself. Eventually, they’ll want a winner.

That’s when MacLean will run out of rope. While other teams like Nashville and Minnesota took to building their clubs the old fashioned way, through smart trades, other teams table scraps, and young players, the Jackets were aggressive in the market, signing and/or trading for many “name” players. Among them, Luke Richardson, Todd Marchant, Scott Lachance, Geoff Sandersonand Andrew Cassels. All with contracts that a lot of league people looked at with just a tad of skepticism.

MacLean took the approach of constructing his club largely around these high-priced veterans. It hasn’t worked. Nashville, in their sixth year, went to the playoffs and took the President’s Trophy champs to a tough sixth game. Minnesota got their in the third year of existence, going all the way to the final four, knocking off two heavy Western Conference favorites in Colorado and Vancouver in the process.

It’s do or die for Doug MacLean.

On Anaheim’s side, unloading a player like Fedorov hurts. I’ve seen some say he’s washed up, or past his prime, but I still think he would’ve been a big part of whatever success they would’ve had this season. But when you’re as close to the cap as they were, moves like this have to be made. They basically moved Steve Rucchin, long the heart and soul of the team, to the Rangers for nothing.

But what message this deal sends, beyond the reality that Doug MacLean is a desperate man, is that the days of hockey trades are not coming back with any regularity anytime soon. That’s what makes the Dany Heatley-Marian Hossa trade this past summer all the more special.

Of course there were financial ramifications involved in that deal, as the Sens couldn’t afford to keep Hossa at that price and maintain the rest of the core. But at least it was a swap of elite players and not a selling of the farm.

Kevin Allen penned a piece in yesterday’s USA Today about the deal, noting that it’s worked out well for both teams. Even though they’re at opposite ends of the standings, I’d probably be inclined to agree with that so far.

Heatley has been a phenom here in Ottawa, but a lot of his success has been how well he’s gelled with the surroundings, specifically Jason Spezza. Hossa hasn’t had as much to work with down south. Even with Ilya Kovalchuk playing with him, it’s hard to win on a consistent basis when both of your goaltenders are out with injuries. As good as Ottawa is up front, I’d hate to even ponder what would happen if both Dominik Hasek AND Ray Emery went down and they had to call up someone like Billy Thompson or Kelly Guard to carry the load for a while.

If you talk to Thrashers fans, they’ll tell you Hossa has been their best, most steady forward from jump this year. Even though part of me still smarts from how he left, it’s nice to see someone like Marian Hossa, who was such an integral part of this organization’s rise to prominence after years of occupying the basement, I’m glad he’s doing well.

It’s a shame fans of the rest of the teams in the NHL likely won’t be lucky enough to experience the excitement that Sens and Thrashers followers did on that faithful August afternoon. Such emotions now sit in a box somewhere in NY with the redline and puckhandling goaltenders.

Carolina 2 Ottawa 1

THE GOOD:

Daniel Alfredsson collecting his 600th career point, and the standing ovation that the crowd gave him. Alfredsson’s career season continues to roll on, but this particular milestone was very nice. It almost seems like yesterday that an unknown Swede came to Ottawa with no expectations and managed to emerge as the best player on the team, winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year his first season. A 6th round pick, few in Ottawa knew who Alfie was when he first arrived, let alone thought he would eventually be the team captain, the organization’s posterboy, and so far, the greatest Ottawa Senator yet. Let’s hope he goes onto achieve bigger and better things in a Sens uniform.

Martin Havlat on the penalty kill. He continues to be a force when the Sens are down a man. On one instance, Havlat created a scoring chance out of basically nothing, as he went in one-on-four and still managed to generate a scoring chance.

Montreal keeps winning. When a team like Ottawa is playing as well as they have been this season, a fear fans have, legitimately, is they’ll grow complacent. But with Montreal continuing to play well, and stay ahead of Ottawa in the Eastern Conference and Northeast Division standing, Ottawa doesn’t have to find much motivation in order to get up for games.

THE BAD:

The emergence of Canadian winter / Rogers Cable. Today was the Ottawa region’s first significant snowfall, though it was mostly washed away by the freezing rain that came in the late evening period. Considering it’s mid-November, I can’t be too mad, and after seeing what Winnipegers had to deal with this morning, should probably consider myself lucky. But why does the cold weather affect my cable? For the last few minutes of the first period and most second, the cable was out, and I wasn’t able to see the game. Way to go Rogers.

The powerplay. Yes, yet again. I know, by now I sound like a broken record, but when you go 0 for 8 with the man advantage in a one goal loss, it has to be brought up. The Sens are officially in an epidemic on the PP. When they’re winning games, it can be overlooked, but in loses, suddenly, these kinks in the armor that the cheerleaders say we should just ignore because, hey, we go the W, become more prominent. I’ve been talking about their inefficiency on the powerplay for more than a few games now and it has apparently fallen on deaf ears. Yes, coach Murray addressed it to the media, but in the end, has made no significant chances to the people who’ve been at fault for its faults. He did move Martin Havlat onto the number one PP unit, putting Daniel Alfredsson back on the point. But what has been the undoing of the PP has been the forwards tendency to try and be too pretty, too slick. So the solution is Martin Havlat? Really? It hasn’t helped, and in fact, the PP has managed to get even worse, with last nights game being the apex. They only registered eight shots during their eight PP opportunities. Once again, instead of moving the puck with speed from player to player, cycling the puck in order to set a play up, they were taking their sweet time and looking for that one magical shot. Most of the time, it was a one-timer from Alfredsson. He’s usually pretty good with these plays, but last night, Alfredsson couldn’t hit the net if the remaining four years on his contract depended on it. In addition, Alfie, who’s also almost always dependable handling the puck back there, was shaky all night long. It just wasn’t his night in that sense. As well, to the fans who holler “SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT” anytime someone touches the puck, if there is a defender in that shooters face, it makes absolutely zero sense to fire a shot in that situation. It’s a great risk. If that player blocks it, he usually has a breakaway, and even though with Alfie on the backend, they have a fast skater who’s relentless on the backcheck, it’s not smart. Murray tried to respond by giving ice time to the second unit (which, for most of the time, was Bryan Smolinski, Mike Fisher, Chris Neil, Brian Pothier, and either Wade Redden or Zdeno Chara), but while they were more aggressive, they could barely get the puck into the Carolina zone to set anything up. With the kind of talent Ottawa has, the fact that the powerplay is so poor is alarming. I don’t have any easy solutions, but one recommendation I do have is putting Chris Neil back on the first unit to fill the role of “the guy who stands in front of the net”. He played that part earlier in the season to extraordinary results. I know, we, as Sens fans have a certain image of Neil. We see him as a grinder, perennial fourth-liner who can drop the gloves. We’ve loved him in that role. But anymore more has been a stretch. Hell, I think a lot of us, myself included, have had a difficult time accepting him on the third line with Smolinski and Fisher, even though he’s been fantastic. Ken Daneyko was on Ottawa sports radio this morning and compared Neil to his former Devil teammate Randy McKay in the role he plays on the team, which is a pretty nice compliment from the veteran. The problem with the powerplay, as I see it, is that the goalie can see the shots. If they do through, his vision isn’t impaired. And when a goalie is playing as well as Carolina’s Martin Gerber has been lately (sans the Atlanta blowout over the weekend), you can’t let him see shots if you intend to score. In theory, I’d think Dany Heatley, who is advertised as a power forward, could do it, but he apparently likes to shoot and doesn’t spend much time in front of the net. That’s my powerplay rant for the night.

Two goal posts in the first period. Snake-bitten to say the least.

The high stick on the ‘Canes first goal. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20, but boy does that look like a bad call. It sure appears on the replays as if Justin Williams knocked the puck down with a high stick, leading to the goal by Ray Whitney.

Jason Spezza’s sloppiness with the puck. With a player like Spezza, who excels when the reigns are off and he’s allowed to be creative, you have to be careful not to give him too much rope or he’ll hang himself. Lately it seems like Spezza has been getting away from the fundamentals and trying to be too creative, too pretty. Almost like he’s trying to get on the highlight reels every time out. Spezza has to simply his game and get back to what made him dominant earlier in the season. Put more time into his passes and think a little bit. Sometimes it might not look great but it’s effective. As well, his defensive coverage has been getting more lax as the year has gone on. If Spezza wants to play his way onto Team Canada for the Olympics, like he says, he’ll have to correct this part of his game, because otherwise, Wayne Gretzky and the rest of the decision makers won’t even give him a second look, regardless of how explosive he is offensively.

Fanning on shots and outright missing the net. I mentioned Alfredsson’s affliction for missing the goal when playing the point on the PP above, but the entire team was particularly poor in this sense last night. On the Team 1200’s post game show they said the Sens had 28 missed shots, and while I’m not sure that number is official, it doesn’t sound outrageous. Games like this happen, so there’s usually not much you can about it, but boy is it frustrating as a fan watching.

Vaclav Varada’s ice time. Last week I talked about Varada’s complaining about his lack of playing time and how many, including V, theorized that he likely won’t be around for the year if he’s not going to be anything more than a fourth line forward. At $1.2 million, it’s a tough spot. Varada got five shifts last night, and I know when a team is down, the fourth line is less likely to get on the ice because they’re perceived as less gifted offensively, and the team needs goals, but Varada (and his linemate, Chris Kelly), are energy guys who can stir things up. If the team is playing well, I get not wanting to stir the pot, but when they’re sorta being inconsistent out there, putting a line like this out might spark something.

THE OPPOSITION:

Carolina once again manages to foil the otherwise red hot Senators, and in the process, solidify themselves as a top team whose success this season is anything but a fluke. Were they the better club on this night? That’s debatable. They were grossly outshot 36-19, but still, somehow managed to control the pace of the game. They did something I don’t think any other club besides Philadelphia, who handed Ottawa their only non-Carolina defeat, has been able to accomplish this season: they forced Ottawa to play their game, and not vice versa. One of the praises Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock has heaped onto the Sens is that they can beat you any way. They can play a physical grinding game and win, they can play a run and gun and win, and they can win a tight defensive contest. However, last night, Carolina played their game. They were aggressive on the forecheck, slowed the pace while still maintaining some pressure, and once up a goal, went into a tight system that made it nearly impossible for Ottawa to carry the puck past the Hurricanes’ blueline. Instead, Ottawa was forced to play dump ‘n chase. It’s a style of play that they can still win with against inferior teams, but with Carolina, who’s defence, though underrated, is both big and relatively quick as well as being good puck movers, it’s difficult to win those battles. Ottawa made the mistake of not adjusting as well as they could’ve, as with the exception of a couple forwards (Mike Fisher, Chris Neil, Peter Schaefer), few were willing to pay the price of going into the corners. So essentially, they were forced played dump n chase without much enthusiasm in their chase. Some flat out refused to be denied their finesse ways, and time after time, tried to carry it in, only to be denied at the line. A big part of their game, and why they won, cannot be ignored, and that’s the blocked shots. I’m not sure if the NHL keeps track of what team gets their shots blocked most in the league, but I have to imagine the Senators are up near the top. Earlier this year, Jay McKee alone blocked 10. On this night, it was 22 shots blocked for the ‘Canes, many of which occurring when Ottawa had a PP. They were excellent at closing down the passing lanes, making moving the puck difficult, and with Ottawa already trying to do too much with the man advantage, they made it even more strenuous by getting in front of shots and having their sticks all over the ice. For Carolina, it was a textbook road win. They did what they had to, and while it certainly wasn’t as pretty as a lot of their wins, including the one earlier in the year over the same Sens, it still counts as two points on the big board. I will note that I didn’t think their big line of Cory Stillman-Eric Staal-Erik Cole had a particularly great night, but the fact they still won shows that they’re not a one line club. The secondary players, especially Justin Williams and Ottawa native Rod Brind’Amour, stepped their game up and carried the load. When those two are their best forwards, it’s probably no surprise then that the game was more defensive and less explosive.

UP NEXT:

It’s a game that I imagine many fans as well as those inside the organization have had circled on their calendar for a while. Jacques Martin returns to the team he had a major part in building with the new club he’s hoping has similar success. The Panthers, even with their less than flattering record, can be a difficult team to play. Even in defeat, they gave the Habs a pretty good workout last night at the Bell Centre, and even if the five skaters on the ice are playing poorly, you still have to score on what may be the best goalie in the world in Roberto Luongo. Plus, noted Sens-killer Gary Roberts will return to the Corel Centre, which even out of the Blue And White, should still give Sens fans some worry. It will be interesting to see if the Panthers learned anything from how the ‘Canes beat the Senators last night, as if they want to win, they’ll have to employ simply tactics.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Ottawa 6 Buffalo 1

Alas, no TV coverage like I had originally thought. Again. The Senators have played five Saturday night games (undefeated on Saturday night, by the way), and two of them were not televised outside of broadcasts only available on the Centre Ice package. I’m not liking this, at all. Fortunately the next eight will be.

I get that a Montreal-Toronto game is about as big as it comes for the CBC, and they should by all means dedicate significant energy on broadcasting it. But if they’re not going to broadcast the Sens game to the Ottawa region, even with a skeleton crew, then sell the rights to Rogers Sportsnet or TSN or a local network like the CHUM-owned A Channel. This monopoly the CBC has over Saturday nights is pretty frustrating.

/ rant

Anyway, I was unable to get out to Kanata to see tonight’s romp over the Sabres, but all accounts say it was yet another utter domination in every way possible.

I want to make note that Ray Emery recorded his fourth win of the season. He’s now 4-0. For those who say, yeah, with that team playing in front of him he can’t help but win: while it’s probably true it helps, he’s still been steady in reliable when called upon. I didn’t see his performance last night but those who did said he made a bunch of big saves in the first period, when the game was still scoreless. He made three stops on breakaways and another on a two-on-one. I have thought he was solid in the other games, and particularly good against Montreal. I understand he hasn’t proven himself to be an elite, number one goalie, or even a back-up who can consistently win games, but his pedigree is as good as any other second stringer in the league right now. This for the doubters who seem to think if Dominik Hasek goes down (apparently he has some sort of internal bomb that will ensure he won’t be ready come playoff time), the Senators are screwed, and thus, they should use whatever cap space they have to acquire a proven number one goalie for when Hasek suffers his imminent injury.

As for the rest of the game, while the still-unnamed Big Line (I’ll touch on that fiasco either later today or tomorrow) continued to put up statistics, those who saw the game once again raved about the play of the second line - Peter Schaefer-Antoine Vermette-Martin Havlat - as well as Mike Fisher’s game. While many talk about the Sens putting all their eggs into one basket with the top line, they’re ignoring that the club is actually getting quite a bit of secondary scoring. Havlat has 11 points (nine goals and two assists) in 10 games, Schaefer 14 in 15, Chris Neil has 11 in 15 (including seven goals), and Bryan Smolinski seems to have rediscovered his game after a poor start to the season, collecting four points in his last three games.

The one negative coming out of the contest is rookie defenceman Andrej Meszaros, who up to this point has been fantastic this season, left the game with an undisclosed lower body injury. Some were guessing it was some kind of ankle wound, but at this point it’s all up in the air. It might've just been a precautionary method. It’ll be a shame if he is out of the line-up, but they do have a pretty good 7th defenceman in Christoph Schubert sitting on the sidelines itching to get back into some games. He was very strong in the four games he did play so it shouldn’t be a major blow to their momentum either way.

In addition to the satisfaction that should come to Sens fans due to another win, there is the fact the team appears to be finally on a normal schedule. I bitched about their absurd schedule so far this season in the last game recap, but from here on in it looks to be evening out.

They have a nice little run coming up, with all of their three games next week being at the CC, the first of which being the (before Atlanta got a hold of them) red hot Carolina Hurricanes, who gave the Sens their first loss of the season. The ‘Canes will be looking to bounce back from being absolutely humiliated in their own building last night by the Thrashers. And you know the Sens will want to achieve some retribution. After that, Jacques Martin and maybe the best goalie in the world come to town on Thursday, and then we face yet another talented ‘tender in Martin Brodeur and the inconsistent Devils Saturday night. And yes, HNIC will be broadcasting the game.

Oh, and Martin Biron
"The first time we came into this building it was 2-0 after two (periods) and they got three power play goals at the end. The game in Buffalo is a game you just throw in the garbage and not look at it. (Saturday) night it's 2-1 for two periods and we gave them one period to really show their stuff. This group of guys in here, we can play with those guys, we just need to do it for 60 minutes."

You really can't. I don't think anyone who's seen the three games would think you can. Not based on what we've seen. The first game, the score was flattering. It was 2-0 going into the third, yeah, but the Sabres were never really in it. "Garbage" is a good way to describe the 10-4 drubbing. And though I didn't see last night's game, to simplify it by saying "oh, well, if you eliminate the second period, it was 2-1" is being somewhat misleading. That one goal you got was with the Sens up 6-0 and playing their inferior lines, likely trying to not embarass your team yet again.

Buffalo is a team I had high hopes for going into the season, and in the games against other teams, they look promising, but when matched up with the Sens, it's like a NHL club and a minor league squad. Even when the Sens aren't playing up to their fullest, they're still a superior team, almost to the point of toying with Buffalo. Whether or not this can be explained simply by the reality that Ottawa is that much better than Buffalo, or just that they've shit the bed three times now against the worst team to do it with, who knows.

With no Sens game on the tube, I decided to take in the Habs-Leafs game instead, and I must say, I'm glad I did so. It was one of the more entertaining games I've seen all season, and a big reason why it was so exciting was the electric atmosphere. You could feel it even through the TV. Seemed more like a playoff game than a November match-up. Only reaffirmed by desire to finally see a Habs game in person, ideally this season, when the team is so explosive.

As for the contest itself, Leaf fans should be thanking the hockey Gods above they'll be leaving Quebec with two points. They were outplayed and outclassed in every way. But they still managed to squeak out a win, and being the victors in games you don't deserve to even be in is something every team encounters. At least Ed Belfour looked to have rebounded from his dreadful performance the night before. If they had indeed gone with Mikael Tellqvist instead of Eddie, as I'd heard some Leaf fans suggest today, the score likely would've been 5-1 after the first. The defence was terrible, so they should hope the rumors about them shopping Jason Allison around the league in hopes of getting back a defenceman that would be an upgrade are true. Ken Klee in particular was awful.

I was very torn watching it though, as I couldn't decide who to root for. All logic says I should've been cheering for the Buds, since it is Montreal who Ottawa is chasing for the lead in the Northeast. Plus, I've seen almost every Habs game this year and due to their excitement level as a team, have developed a strange affinity for them. So I just couldn't bring myself to be happy when Jeff O'Neill scored the OT winner regardless of the fact it was the smart side to take. With the way the Leafs have played this season, I'm not really worried about them as a threat to the Senators - I don't put too much stock in the "gotta slay the dragon" concept, as the two teams are so different from the ones that played in April of 2004, including a big change behind the Sens bench - and Montreal looks to be much more dangerous in head-to-head matchups. But old habits die hard I suppose.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Who's Daniel Paille?


Credit to the boys at the Senators board on the Hockey Futures forum. ESPN continues their tremendous NHL coverage.

Ottawa 5 Boston 2

THE GOOD:

Dominik Hasek’s big saves. As Sens fans, I think we’re still getting used to the reality that we have a world class, elite goalie between our pipes. Forgive us if it’s taking a little long to get adjusted to. Just when we forget, the Dominator makes a spectacular save. No disrespect to Patrick Lalime, who’s having a hard enough time in St. Louis without Sens fans piling back onto him for his past mistakes, but you have to wonder how far this team could’ve gone in the past had they had a great goalie. And this is coming from someone who always maintained the ‘tender was never the reason Ottawa lost.

Daniel Alfredsson’s play. Color commentator Gord Wilson made a point on the broadcast: the Sens captain is the best player in the NHL right now. And though there are a handful of equally worthy candidates for said title, all of whom prolly serve their case being made for them, I’d have to agree. Because not only is he sizzling on the scoresheet (another two assists last night), but Alfie’s play in his own zone and on the forecheck has been ridiculous. In the 10 years he’s been a Senator, this is, far and away, the best I’ve seen him play, and maybe the best I’ve seen any single Senator player play for an extended period of time.

The penalty killing unit, and specifically, Martin Havlat. Havlat should’ve had that goal Peter Schaefer got instead (though, we can’t be too mad, as Schaefer only had one goal up to then, so he needed it), as it was a scoring chance generated from his own work. He’s a beast on the PK, and like with Alfredsson on the penalty kill, even having Havlat on the ice changes the way the opposition plays when they’re up a man. They’re much more cautious and are clearly afraid of making a mistake, because they know if they do, it could very well result in a red light behind their goal seconds later. In addition the forwards, the defencemen did an excellent job when the Senators were down a man, shutting down the passing lanes and neutralizing the Bruins forwards.

The play of the fourth line. Yesterday, I talked about the dilemma facing the Sens in regard to how they will deal with unhappy Vaclav Varada, the $1.2 million man playing less than five minutes a game. The response from the team to Varada’s unhappiness was that he had to earn his ice time, and with the rest of the team firing on all cylinders, the only way he was going to leapfrog the others was by stepping up his play. He did so against the Bruins. He was finishing his checks and being the general pest he has to be in order to be effective.

The Brian McGrattan-Colton Orr fight. I’m not one of these pugilists who get erect at the sight of two players dropping the gloves, but even I had to enjoy this tilt. Two guys throwing significant punches, and no major injury incurred.

THE BAD:

The first period. Brutal. Without question, the worst period of play the team has had this season. Now, considering that up to this point, the year has gone pretty well, that’s not saying much, but they were terrible out there. Outshot 17-5, the Senators did not look to have their legs. They lacked that jump, that second gear, that has been a big reason why they’ve been able to dominate opponents so far. Thanks to the early goal that put them up 1-0, they had a lead, and Dany Heatley did miss an open net shortly thereafter that would’ve put them up 2-0 less than five minutes into the game, but after that, they were not good. Boston was outworking them, outchancing them, playing the body much better, stronger on the forecheck, and generally making the Senators look like anything but a top club in the NHL. Every aspect of hockey, the Bruins were better than Ottawa in the first. Fortunately, Hasek made some big saves, and the Bruins, for all their chances, didn’t have much finish, because otherwise, the score would’ve been much less flattering than the 1-1 tie they went into the first intermission with.

Dominik Hasek, wandering goalie. Hasek has been known to become overly involved in the game from time to time. Apparently it’s to keep himself sharp and aware at all times. Often, he can be heard banging his stick in encouragement. As well, he routinely comes bolting out of the crease when an opposing player has a breakaway. Most of the time, it’s very effective. But there is such a thing as going to the well too many times. Hasek pulled it off excellently last night, in the third period, and even a second time moments later, though he didn’t move with near the speed coming out. The third time, his luck ran out, colliding with Wade Redden, leaving the net wide open. The Bruins couldn’t put it into the empty cage, but a few moments later, did score an iffy goal on Hasek, who looked to still be rattled from the collision. Memo to Dominik: you’re a great goalie. A goalie. Not a defenceman, not a forward. Try to stay in your net if at all possible. I know questioning the methods of a guy who’s a guaranteed first ballot Hall Of Famer, and maybe the best goalie of our generation, isn’t exactly logical, but just do me this favor, will ya?

The play with the man advantage. I don’t know what it is, but Ottawa’s powerplay just hasn’t been clicking consistently this season. You’d think a team that can throw the kind of talent out there would have an effective, consistent PP, but that just hasn’t been the case, and it was evident last night. That probably sounds strange, because Ottawa still has one of the top 5 PPs in the NHL, but I have to think the coaching staff isn’t happy with the way it’s been so far this year. Last night was particularly bad though.They were forcing plays, including one through the crease that didn’t work about 10 times, yet kept being attempted, passed sloppily, and on one specific PP, gave up two shorthanded breakaways (resulting in the aforementioned Hasek wandering act) and a goal a few moments later.

The wacky NHL scheduling. I hate to be a complainer, but five days between games is sorta unacceptable. Yet that is what the Senators had to deal with. Maybe if they were banged up, they’d welcome the time off, but instead they were red hot, and thus, having to sit around for half a week was not fun, I’m sure. To make matters worse, only five weeks into the season, this is the second time it’s happened to Ottawa. Going into last night, Ottawa had only played 13 games, tied with Philadelphia for the least amount in the NHL. Meanwhile, other teams in their division had played 17 (Boston), 16 (Montreal & Toronto), and 15 (Buffalo) . And brace yourselves, Sens fans, it’s going to happen again next month when they have six (!) days between games in early December.

THE OPPOSITION:

Even though they failed to capitalize on the chances they worked for, I was impressed with the play of the Bruins in the first period. They were throwing tons of pucks at Hasek, going hard to the net, making smart passes, and backchecking hard. I thought, this looks like the team I picked to win the Northeast. Alas, it didn’t sustain itself. It seemed like some wind was let out their sails when they were able to dominate the Senators so and still only come away with a tie after one period. Once the Senators got a few quick goals, generated off mistakes from the Bruins, they weren’t able to get their a-game back and score some goals to get back into the game. Without Brian Leetch, who’s injured, and with Nick Boynton a nonfactor, their defence was their undoing. And specifically, the veterans. Hal Gill may still have sore balls, because he was not good, and Jiri Slegr wasn’t much better. And greenhorns like Kevin Dallman and Andrew Alberts simply aren’t able to defend the kind of firepower the Senators can throw at you. Up front, they sport a lot of weapons of their own, but being dangerous on paper doesn’t win you games. The secondary scoring that they’ll need to win games, from Alexei Zhamnov and Patrice Bergeron, was just not there on a steady basis. Sergei Samsonov was working hard and almost single-handedly creating plays on his own, but that wasn't enough last night nor will it be on most nights. Having seen them play a handful of games now, I’ve about given up my hope that the B’s would prove my prediction right. I praised a lot of the offseason moves they mad, bringing in Leetch (who, in his defense, was very good before he got hurt), Scatchard, McEachern, etc. It hasn’t worked out. As well, I assumed, wrongly, that Bergeron and goalie Andrew Raycroft would be even better in their second years than they were their rookie seasons. Instead, both seem to have caught a nasty case of the sophmore slump that has crippled them, transforming each into average players. In the run and gun Northeast, where a 12-2 record only gets you second place, Boston, last year’s divisional champs, may end up being the team on the outside looking in come late April.

UP NEXT:

Wow, a game tomorrow night. Thanks NHL. The Sens will host the Buffalo Sabres at the Corel Centre on HNIC. Yes, the same Sabres that Ottawa embarrassed the piss out of on national TV, thrashing them 10-4. Before that, Ottawa beat them up 5-0. So you know the Sabres will be looking for redemption, which just might be only losing by two or three goals. I’ve contended after each win over the Sabres that Ottawa didn’t face Buffalo when they were on top of their game, as I still maintain they’re a better team than we’ve seen in the match-ups with the Sens. However, this third time out, they will have to show me something or I will have no choice but to write them off as the mediocre club they’ve been in the games against Ottawa. I’m sure Martin Biron still has nightmares from that 10-4 beating, so he’ll either be extremely motivated to show and prove, or he’ll still be shellshocked. Half the fun might just be finding out.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

All is not well after all

With the Ottawa Senators the talk of the NHL, widely considered to be among the most exciting and dominant teams in the league, you'd think everything is going great and everyone is happy.

Not the case.

The rumblings of Vaclav Varada's unhappiness with his current role, a fourth line checker, have been bubbling lately, and came to the surface in today's Ottawa Sun, where Varada expressed his displeasure.

"If things are going to change, I will feel better," said Varada. "The situation is not good for me. I'm glad the guys are playing well and we are winning games.

"I just want to play more. I think I'm a better player than to just play five minutes a game. In the last game, I didn't have many shifts. What can you show the coach if you are not playing? I just have to try to do the best that I can do in this situation, but it's not easy because I want to play more...

"I like the fact that we're winning, but I would like to feel part of the winning," said Varada. "Right now, I'm not feeling like I'm part of it, but the guys in here have been great to me."

He's right. Varada makes too much money, $1.2 million, to be relegated to a fourth line role with 5 minutes of ice time a game. While he brings a certain intensity and some experience, in this new cash strapped NHL, where every dollar counts, it seems to me like it would make more sense to give that spot to a Denis Hamel, who can do a lot of the same things Varada can and would take up almost $800,000 less against the $39 million salary cap.

As the article notes, with the way the team is rolling, it's difficult to find a spot for Varada outside of that fourth line. Going into this year, the left wing position was said to be the weakness of the team, but the three players ahead of V on the depth chart, Dany Heatley, Peter Schaefer, and now Mike Fisher have been among the Senators' most consistent players night in and night out. Who do you remove to put Varada in?

In some ways, Varada has been spoiled since coming to Ottawa. When healthy, most often, he was paired up with Radek Bonk and Marian Hossa on one of the top two lines. Jacques Martin liked the grittiness he brought to that line, and for the most part, he was effective. Now, with both of them gone, he's been left without someone to combo with. Bryan Murray is a big advocate of chemistry and likes the idea of creating lines based on how players mesh. Jason Spezza with Heatley, Fisher with Chris Neil, Schaefer with Martin Havlat. Varada is left standing around.

And the truth is, it's not as if there are other dimensions to Varada's game that would justify keeping him around at that price on the fourth line. They tried using him on the second unit powerplay as the guy in front of the net causing trouble, a role that has served Neil very well, but it never amounted to any production. Unlike fellow fourth liner Chris Kelly, Varada does not kill penalties. He's simply not a good enough skater to play that part.

Senators GM John Muckler has talked about his frustration with the new NHL landscape as far as trades before, and notes that it's doubtful any deal will be made. But as Varada notes, if this trend doesn't change, it's hard to imagine he'll finish the year in the nation's capital.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The captain sums it up

"Under Jacques we were very much a team that played extremely well defensively and, as the years went on, we got better offensively and capitalized on other teams' mistakes. This year, we're not waiting for other teams' mistakes. We're trying to create chances instead of sitting back and waiting for teams to turn the puck over. We're making things happen with our speed."

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Ottawa 6 NY Islanders 0

THE GOOD:

Senators forwards going hard to the net. With the new rules leaving defencemen handcuffed to fend off forwards around the net, it’s about time the Senators skaters went hard crashing the goalie. There’s a thin line between going to the net and running the goalie, and they walked it last night. Even beyond giving up six goals, it was a long night for Rick DiPietro, as he had Black sweaters in his face all night long. While Ottawa is a team that mostly wins from finesse, in the form of good skating and precise passing, they showed they too can play a more aggressive playoff style of game if need be.

The still unnamed big line continuing to produce. They had a combined seven points last night. There appears to be no stopping this trio. In addition to the offense they can and do put up, they are an excellent puck possession line, as when they’re on the ice, they spend what has to be 75% of the time in the opposition’s end with the puck. They can create chances on quick breakouts, as we’ve seen, but their ability to move the puck amongt each other is superb.

Anton Volchenkov’s play in his first game back. Having missed three games with a shoulder injury, there was some concern among Sens fans, and I imagine within the organization, about whether or not Volchenkov, whose game is so dependent on his physical play, could be effective as soon as he was back in the line-up. He quickly erased any doubts with a few big hits early in the game, setting the tone for the entire night.

Zdeno Chara shutting down Alexei Yashin. The much maligned Yashin, who as expected was booed everytime he touched the puck, was not at all a factor in last night’s game, aside from taking two penalties that put the Isles on the PK against a red hot team, and much of the credit for that has to go to Chara. Even though most Sens fans would probably hate to admit it, Yashin seems to have found his groove on Long Island as of late and came into the game as one of their better performing players (though it hasn’t translated into any consistent winning from the team). So the fact he was unable to contribute offensively is a credit to Chara, who in logging over 27 minutes of ice time played a ton last night. Chara playing against the other team’s best forward, and shutting them down, has become a trend and it will need to continue as teams begin elevating their games when playing Ottawa.

Beating Alexei Yashin on his 32nd birthday. Yes, I am that petty.

Setting a new Corel Centre attendance record. The soldout crowd of 19,776 was the largest to see the Sens play.

Free pizza. Even with Pizza Pizza bitching out and changing the terms of their contest by deciding the Sens would now have to score six goals, not five, in order for those in attendance to redeem their tickets for a free slice of pie, we still won. How ya like those apples? Why do I think by next week it’ll be eight?

Brian Pothier. Yes, you read that right. My whipping boy get praise. He actually had one of his better games of the season, I thought, distributing the puck well and not being the softy in the Sens’ end that he usually is.

Mike Fisher. I’ve singled him out in each of the last two games, so it probably seems like I’m favoring Fish, but his play as of late has been tremendous. He appears to have really found his place playing the wing.

THE BAD:

Jason Spezza going hard into the boards, and giving Sens fans everywhere a near heart attack. Though he turned out to be all right, when Jason Spezza went crashing, feet first, into the wall, you could literally hear the collective heart beats of those in attendance pounding. As he skated to the bench gingerly, our worst fears had come true. Alas, he was okay. Whether or not Alexei Zhitnik’s shove into the boards was dirty or not could be debated, but I would’ve felt better about it had one of the Sens let him know that will not tolerated.

THE OPPOSITION:

The Islanders are a team that I predicted would miss the playoffs and finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, and after last night, I have no reason to think that was incorrect. Which, if you’ve followed how my predictions have fared (Tampa winning the division, Carolina out of the playoffs, Atlanta in, etc.), you’d know is a first. Firstly, it should be noted this team is surprisingly slow. I’ve only seen them play one other time this year, in a great game at MSG against the Rangers in which they won in a shootout, so it’s possible it was just an off night for the Islanders, but for a team with, on paper, some good skating forwards and a few decent puck moving defencemen, they were not at all effective in getting the puck into the Sens end with any kind of regularity or quickness. They appeared to be lacking that next gear that most players have. Coasting, if you will. Again, because Ottawa is such a dominant team, it’s difficult to say if this is because of how good the Sens are or if the Islanders are just not a very strong team, but if I was a fan of this club, I’d be worried. Their defence, which was essentially turned upside down in the offseason when they lost three of their top four blueliners, was awful. They had no answer for the Sens’ forwards and their speed, and were incapable of stopping them from going to the net. Their solution was to push them onto their goalie, who I felt quite bad for for most of the game. Of the defencemen, the only one who impressed me was former Canuck Brent Sopel, as he was at least trying to create plays through passing. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Janne Niinimaa was not good and rookie Chris Campolli was even worse. Once the strength of the team, the defence now looks to be it’s Achilles heel, and unfortunately, they don’t have the forwards to make up for it. A few of the guys who they’ll need to step up if they have any hope of playing in late April were downright invisible last night. Oleg Kvasha, Trent Hunter, Michael York, and Mark Parrish were all non factors except for a few shifts where, at most, they worked hard, and for them to be a team in contention, that has to change ASAP. They need to produce. Their powerplay was especially atrocious (York on the point?!?). To say it needs work would be the understatement of the year. It needs an overhaul in the worst way based on what I saw. And even though he let in six goals, DiPietro did not have all that bad a game. With Sens players all over him all night long, he had no real chance on a lot of them. He’s not an elite goalie, yet, and needs the skaters who play in front of him to be a lot more helpful in the future. That said, if not for a few of his spectacular saves, the score would’ve been a whole lot less flattering.

UP NEXT:

Another extended break, as the Senators don’t resume playing until Thursday when the Sens travel to Boston. This NHL scheduling kills me. Boston, if you recall, was the team I picked to win the Northeast (yet another one of my idiotic predictions), and they seem to be struggling to find their way this season, playing very inconsistently from game to game. They’ll be without goalie Andrew Raycroft and defenceman Brian Leetch, both out with injuries. On paper, you’d think with those two out of the line-up the Sens will be able to walk all over them, but the B’s still have a few gamebreakers who can takeover a game single-handedly, the most notable of course being captain Joe Thornton. The Sens beat up on them pretty bad earlier in the season so you know they’ll be looking for redemption. But the truth is, if the Sens keep playing like this, I think they’ll be disappointed with the result. While I’m sure they’ll relish a few days off, when a team is playing like Ottawa, a break of four days between games is probably not the ideal scenario, as you want to keep at it while you’re hot.

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