Saturday, December 31, 2005

Ottawa 4 NY Islanders 3

THE GOOD:

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

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

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

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

THE BAD:

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

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

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

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

THE OPPOSITION:

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

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

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

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

UP NEXT:

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Blog update

I apologize for the lack of posts here as of late. With the holidays, I had little time to get online and muse.

I did head out to the Corel Centre for last night's game though, and was very impressed with the effort the Sens gave. Despite being saddled with a gang of penalties early, they fought through it and managed to dominate the 'Canes for the last 50 or so minutes.

It was also tremendous to see them set an attendance record with over 20,000 people in the building. Considering there was a severe freezing rain warning (which made the drive home both long and tiresome), that was very impressive, I thought.

Remember last week when I said this week's games would be a measuring stick? I think they've established themselves very nicely. They've handed it to two pretty good teams, standings wise anyway, despite still missing Jason Spezza, who's chest injury seems to be getting no better. This is now the second time a major player went down with what was supposed to be a minor injury for an extended period of time.

I realize there is no science to this kind of stuff, but why do I get the impression I'm getting spin from the club everytime they use that "day-to-day", "we'll see how it feels tomorrow" jargin? Is the new training staff not doing their jobs? What gives.

Spezza now says the earliest he'll be back is Monday. Luckily, the rest of the team has elevated their games in his absence, particularly Bryan Smolinski in Spezza's place on the first line, but the Senators need Spezza back in the line-up to be 100% effective.

But regardless, this week has been a pretty fruitful one for the team, and even though it would be foolish to look past any team, I can't see that changing with tomorrow's tilt against the Islanders. The Sens have made Yashin and Co. look pretty bad in both of the previous encounters this season.

Regular updates will resume *fingers crossed* tomorrow.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Ottawa 4 NY Islanders 2

THE GOOD:

Getting off to a good start. After the way the Senators responded during that embarrassing first period onslaught from the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday, it was refreshing to see a completely different team take the ice to start last night. It was the Senators we’ve come to known this season. Quick skating, good outlet passes from the defence and excellent tape to tape passes from the forwards, a strong forecheck, and everyone finishing their checks. The result was three quick goals to give them a 3-0 lead less than five minutes into the game. And while we saw on Tuesday vs. Montreal that a three goal lead is never safe, and can evaporate very quickly with poor play, it was a safe assumption that the Sens had it in the bag by the second when they barely let up the gas.

Ray Emery. Emery made several big saves through the game and looked to have his confidence back after two Ls in a row. His rebound control was excellent and he was seeing pucks extremely well all night long. Emery continues to prove he’s a more than capable backup who, if called upon, can perform.

Scoring from the blueliners. With Martin Havlat and now Brandon Bochenski out indefinitely, much has been made about the Senators need for consistent secondary scoring. The usual suspects have been looked to to provide it: Bryan Smolinski, Mike Fisher, Peter Schaefer. However, if the Senators will remain the top team in the NHL, they’ll require their defencemen to pick it up offensively. Last night, we saw that. Zdeno Chara scored his third goal in as many games while Andrej Meszaros’ terrific rookie season continued as he netted a goal. There were other points in the game where an Ottawa rearguard could’ve tallied a goal as well, included Anton Volchenkov being set up in the high slot in the third period for a glorious scoring chance.

Reuniting Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson. Even though I disagreed with it, I could recognize Bryan Murray’s logic in breaking up Alfie and Heatley for Thursday night’s game against the Flyers. With Spezza out, on top of the two shoulder injuries on the wing, the Sens desperately needed scoring and so distributing it over two lines instead of one was understandable. However, it didn’t work. Heatley had an awful game and Alfie wasn’t much better. In both cases, the guy was trying to do too much to compensate for the factthere were gaping holes in the line-up. Heatley in particular was making not just one move too many on a play, but more like three or four moves than necessary. He would’ve been much better off just shooting the puck. With the way they struggled, it was a no brainer to pair them back up and though it wasn’t quite as magical as when Spezza is centering the pair, you could see the games of both #11 and #15 get taken to the next level playing with each other.

The Peter Schaefer-Mike Fisher-Chris Neil line. For the second straight night, this trio was Ottawa’s most consistent forward line. Fisher in particular was a beast, registering four shots and four takeaways, accounting for half of Ottawa’s total in that regard.

The powerplay. 2 for 4 is a much more pleasing statistic than what we’ve been seeing as of late from the Senators.

THE BAD:

Antoine Vermette’s limited minutes. After an excellent game against Philly, you’d think Murray would reward Vermette with more ice time. Nope. He continued to get few even strength shifts (his line as a whole wasn’t on the ice much during 5-on-5 play) and got most of his sniffs of time on the PK. He’s an excellent penalty killer, but there is so much more to Vermette’s game than that that I wonder why Murray is reluctant to play him. He gives Patrick Eaves, a rookie, 13 minutes. I like that, as Eaves works hard and plays well. But why not Vermette as well? Vaclav Varada also gives it his all on every shift but just doesn’t have much offensive flare and more often than not fumbles whatever opportunities he gets. Vermette is a proven scorer at both the junior and AHL level. Someone, anyone, explain the logic in this.

Ill timed penalties. After getting up 3-0, the Sens started to get into some trouble. First, Brian Pothier took a very poor tripping penalty that resulted in Jason Blake’s goal to make it 3-1. The Sens then took three straight penalties over the next 12 minutes, giving the Islanders every opportunity to get back into the game. Thankfully, the penalty killing was very good, Emery was in a zone, and the Islanders’ PP wasn’t all that impressive, because it could’ve been a repeat of the Habs game.

THE OPPOSITION:

I will say this about the New York Islanders: they’re a whole lot better than the last time I saw them play Ottawa. Because on that night, almost two months ago, the Isles barely looked like a team good enough to play in the same league as the Senators, let alone be competitive. Some of that had to be chalked up to the fact they had turned over a lot of talent in the offseason and hadn’t yet established the chemistry necessary to win, but even beyond that, there were poor performances from all the players they depend on to be a playoff team.

So in that sense, they’re better, but I’m still not convinced they can be a club playing in late April or May. Their goaltending let them down big time, as Rick DiPietro was not strong through the night. This is a guy who will likely backstop Team USA in Turin, and if so, should squash whatever aspirations that team has of taking home a medal. If he had withstood Ottawa’s pressure in the first period and not given up say two of the three goals the Sens scored, it probably would have been a completely different game. Instead, he put his team in a horrible spot with over 50 minutes of game time remaining.

Another recurring problem is that their alleged stars just aren’t up to snuff. Alexei Yashin was, literally, not even noticeable throughout the game and even when the Isles were on the PP #79 wasn’t a factor. This isn’t news of any substance to Sens fans who watched Yashin do this same act here for years, but the Islanders have rebuilt their entire team around him this season hoping it would spark something. I sure didn’t see it.

The same can be said for Miroslav Satan and Janne Niinimaa, two guys who will have to improve their play if this team has any shot of a playoff spot.

UP NEXT:

With Christmas in two days, the Sens do get a little break, but jump back into action on Boxing Day with a home game against the visiting Rangers.

Truth be told, this is a game I’m looking forward to immensely.

For one, the Rangers have been an anomaly all year to me. I picked them to finish last, yes dead last, in the Eastern Conference, yet here they are, on top of their division more than 30 games into the season. I really don’t understand how they’re doing it. Yes, Jaromir Jagr is playing lights out, finally, and yeah, I know, they’re finally getting top shelf goaltending from Kevin Weekes and Henrik Lundquist, but first place? Really?

And secondly, I want to see how the Sens play against a team that has, so far, been among the league’s best. The Rangers may not be that on paper, but guys like me will have to get over that and accept them as the real deal sooner or later. Ottawa has struggled against top teams this season so let’s see how they respond matched up with a team that has it going for them and who you know will want to make a big impression to prove the skeptics like myself wrong.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Philadelphia 4 Ottawa 3

THE GOOD:

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

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

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

THE BAD:

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

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

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

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

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

THE OPPOSITION:

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

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

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

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

UP NEXT:

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Mulling over the obvious

Unless you've been under a rock, you know that later today, the Team Canada will be announced. We'll finally learn who is headed to Turin, and the incessant debating will come to an end.

That's wishful thinking. Instead of "who will make it?", for the next two months, we'll be treated to "who should have made it?" discussion on message boards, talk radio, and TV panel discussions. By the time the Olympics do come around we'll be so sick of talking about hockey I doubt we'll have an

But that's Canada for you.

I'm nothing if not unoriginal, so here is who I would pick, and who I think will be picked:

GOALIES:

My Team: Martin Brodeur, Marty Turco, Curtis Joseph

The Team: Martin Brodeur, Marty Turco, Roberto Luongo

Brodeur is a given, Turco has played his way onto the team, and they're still high on Luongo as the goalie of the future for Team Canada, and so they're reluctant to snub him all together.

DEFENCE:

My Team: Scott Niedermayer, Wade Redden, Dion Phaneuf, Rob Blake, Robyn Regehr, Dan Boyle, Ed Jovanovski

The Team: Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Adam Foote, Wade Redden, Rob Blake, Robyn Regehr, Ed Jovanovski

I feel like both Foote and Pronger have played their way off the team with their inconsistent play this season, while Boyle and Phaneuf have absolutely played their way onto it. That said, Team Canada won't want to ruffle those kind of feathers, so they'll go with the safe choices. Not that they're terrible either. Bryan McCabe would be my next choice, and if it started tomorrow, would be on my taxi squad.

FORWARDS:

My Team: Jarome Iginla, Simon Gagne, Joe Sakic, Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier, Dany Heatley, Todd Bertuzzi, Eric Staal, Ryan Smyth, Kris Draper, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Brendan Shanahan

The Team: Jarome Iginla, Simon Gagne, Joe Sakic, Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Todd Bertuzzi, Rick Nash, Ryan Smyth, Kris Draper, Joe Thornton, Shane Doan, Dany Heatley

Doan has been too inconsistent for me this season, St. Louis shouldn't be going based on what he did last season, and Rick Nash, though terrific, has been injured all year. He's the perfect candidate for the taxi squad. If he regains his form, then he'll be on there. But to risk that that will happen and give him a solid spot over the others would be foolish. So, you can conclude that I think they're bound to be foolish.

We'll see in a few hours.

EDIT: Puck Stops Here pointed out that I had left off Dany Heatley from the "The Team" list. Obviously, an error. He's one of the sure things I'd think.

Also, look back at who I picked for the team way back in August, after they had wrapped up the orientation camp in Vancouver.

For those of you saying to yourselves that I'm behind the hockey blogsphere curve by posting my team today, mere hours before it's announcement, realize, I was actually ahead of all the others by four months.

How's that for spin?

Montreal 4 Ottawa 3 (SO)

Due to a prior engagement, I was unable to see the majority of last night's loss to the Habs. But based on what I've heard and read about the game, it didn't sound like I missed much from a Sens perspective.

After thrashing the Buds on Saturday night, the Sens should've had momentum coming into the game, but for the second time this season, instead come out of the BoO on an emotional low. Did they blow their load Saturday night?

There is no excuse for blowing a three goal lead. Yes, I've heard the "this is the new NHL where no lead is safe!!!" rationale and I get that with increased scoring, it's inevitable some leads will be lost, but a three goal lead against a team missing so many key pieces of their puzzle is unacceptable.

It's worth noting that the Sens were not without their own M*A*S*H unit. They of course were without Martin Havlat and Brandon Bochenski, but Chris Phillips also missed the game. In addition, Jason Spezza was also added to the list when he pulled a chest muscle during the game. He tried to come back at the start of the second period, but had to pull the chute.

I'll ask the question that so many Sens fans are, I'm sure, afraid to: is Jason Spezza soft?

Coming out of junior, there were three major knocks on Spezza, in spite of all his obvious talent, from some skeptics:
1) His skating was not up to NHL standards
2) He was not defensively sound enough to be an NHL centre yet
3) He wasn't physically tough enough to be an elite player

Since then, his skating has improved to the point that not only is it not a hinderance, but instead, an asset. He's able to switch gears and burn opposing players with regularity.

His defence isn't at Kris Draper levels, and it probably never will be, but in comparison to where he was when he first attended a Sens training camp, it's like a different player entirely. Playing under Jacques Martin will do that to a player, and so even with all the alleged bad blood between the two, Spezza has Martin to thank for the growth in that part of his game.

But with two injuries this season, the question about his ability to withstain punishment is worth bringing up. After all, this is his first season as a top line player in the NHL, logging major minutes and being counted on to carry the team on a lot of nights.

He played a full year in a similar role in the AHL last season, but the two leagues can be very different as far as the kind of wear and tear involved.

Spezza had done a lot of work to improve his conditioning in the past. He worked out with Gary Roberts, who's known to be a freak of nature when it comes to conditioning, during a few offseasons and many said he was coming along in that area.

I genuinely hope I'm wrong, and it's just a case of two bad breaks and some shitty luck. My guess, however, is that we'll find out sooner rather than later.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Finally, the NHL gets something right

Sportsnet.ca -- Senators forward Jason Spezza has escaped discipline from the NHL after receiving an instigator penalty with 3:36 remaining in Saturday night's 8-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Sportsnet has learned the NHL won't suspend Jason Spezza or fine coach Bryan Murray $10,000 over the incident.

The league ruled the "intent" was not premeditated but rather "reactionary", much like the Shane Doan ruling earlier in the year.

If Colin Campbell would've suspended Spezza or even worse fined Murray, he would've made an even bigger mockery out of a rule that is one of the most absurd in the book.

Nice to see, for one day anyway, they got their heads out of their asses.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Ottawa 8 Toronto 2

THE GOOD:

The rejuvenated powerplay. This team’s lack of consistency with the man advantage has been a thorn in my side since the season started, and though it was only one game, going 6 for 11 on the PP is hopefully a sign of things to come. The return of Wade Redden made a noticeable difference in how well their powerplay functions as they were severely lacking his puckmoving abilities when he was out injured. I will say they started slow and on their first couple of opportunities with a man up they were not impressive. Especially the first unit, who were making the same mistakes they had been during this recent slump: sloppy passes, trying to force plays, and losing battles for loose pucks. However, they turned it around and once the train got rolling it was near impossible to stop it.

The Peter Schaefer-Mike Fisher-Chris Neil. In the first period, when Toronto had the lead, it was this trio who were generating much of the team’s chances to even up the score. They were grinding hard and flat out hustling the Leaf defenders matched up against them. Schaefer’s work along the boards continues to be legendary, Fisher is skating as well as I’ve ever seen him, and Neil takes care of the scraps.

Chris Phillips. He was physical, well positioned, and reliable all night long. The other half of the Chara-Phillips pair doesn’t get the fanfare his partner gets, but more than any other Sens player, Chris Phillips seems to rise to the occasion in big games. He’s a notoriously great playoff performer and last night’s game was about as close to playoff game as you’re going to find in December. Phillips even made a big save in the first period when Dominik Hasek was out of position on a play. He moved into the crease and stoned Mats Sundin cold on a shot from the slot.

Chris Kelly. I don’t know what it is about blowouts against the Buds that brings out “Battleship Kelly”’s scoring touch, but both of his goals have been against Toronto. And if I’m not mistaken, each was the eighth goal of the night. Even though on both occasions the game was out of hand, it was nice to see Kelly get the change to pad his stats. He’s one of the team’s unsung heroes and if it wasn’t for ace penalty killers like Kelly, the Sens would’ve struggled even more over the last couple weeks with all the penalties they were taking.

The Big Line getting going again. Even with the majority of their combined eight points coming on the powerplay, it was nice to see this line finally break out of their own down time and put up some offence. Spezza had a strong game, skating hard and making a lot happen, Alfredsson was back to his old form of being remarkably sound in both ends of the ice, and Dany Heatley decided to actually start hitting the net again. And what do you know, it resulted in goals. Imagine that. What couldn’t be ignored about this line during its slump was that they just weren’t finding each other with passes the way they had been previously. For the most part, last night was a return to the old ways.

THE BAD:

Jason Spezza fighting, and now likely being suspended. I’ve already heard some praise #19 for standing up for himself, but I didn’t like the sight of him rolling around on the ice fighting. Especially when he’s coming off a bad hip. There’s no question the spear on him was not kind (was it even Colliacovo who did it?), but he should’ve sucked it up and moved on. We’ll see if he’s suspended, as since they say it’s cut and dry, he automatically is unless it’s rescinded. To me it very much resembled the Shane Doan incident, but Colin Campbell seems to beat to his own drum and pays no mind to the precedent he’s set with his previous mandates, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see Spezza get shelved by the league. I’ll have a hard time swallowing it if Bryan Murray is fined again though, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. By the way, why did Belfour not get a third-man-in penalty on that? He was throwing punches. Eddie couldn’t even get kicked out of the game.

Anton Volchenkov’s enthusiasm for hitting. You can’t tell the “A-Train” to derail himself and stop playing the way that makes him effective, but I’d like to see Volchenkov be a little bit smarter with his timing. On more than one occasion last night, Volchenkov went for a big hit, missed, and a scoring chance opened up for the Leafs. I realize a big hit can change the tempo of a game, and perhaps set a tone, but there’s a time and place for it.

THE OPPOSITION:

The 8-2 score is not flattering to the Leafs, but I’m also not sure it’s a fair indication of how the game was. Even though they were outshot horribly in the first period, the Leafs were not out of it. Had a bounce gone their way during a scrum in the Ottawa crease, it would’ve been 2-0 for Toronto and likely an entirely different game.

What killed them was the same thing that has haunted the Senators: undisciplined play. They took far too many penalties and handed the game to Ottawa on a silver platter. A lot of the calls weren't the kind of penalties I liked whistled down, but it went both ways, so Leafs fans can't really cry foul as far as their team being hit with too many chinzy infractions.

Going into last night, some questioned the wisdom in playing Ed Belfour. After all, Mikael Telqvist has been playing well, Belfour had not, and “Eddie The Eagle” was coming off a groin injury. Was it wise to play him in a game that you knew would see him forced to make a bunch of stops in order for the Leafs to be competitive? It was a fair question.

From a Leafs perspective, I thought Pat Quinn made the right call in going with Eddie. I figured after that last embarrassing outing against the Senators, Belfour, who’s known for his competitive edge, would be quite motivated to play well. It turns out I was wrong.

He started strong, and made a couple large saves in the first period to keep it close, but as the game went on, he unraveled horribly. By the end, he was barely trying. After Bryan Smolinski scored Ottawa’s 5th goal to restore the Sens’ three goal lead, he essentially threw in the towel. On the three goals that followed, Belfour wasn’t making much of an effort, and looked to be trying to get out of the nation’s capital as soon as possible.

However, the team in front of him didn’t fare much better. A few players came to play. I thought Jason Allison was their best forward, and was responsible for more than a couple of their best scoring chances. He went to the net hard and tried to be creative. Matt Stajan was giving his all and despite his smallish stature, was among their most physical forwards. And Clark Wilm was terrific on a lot of the penalty killing shifts he got.

Unfortunately for Leaf Nation, that’s about where it ended. The rest of the team appeared to have forgotten the drubbing they were handed on national TV six weeks ago, because they didn’t play like a team who wanted redemption. For a team that in the past has gotten by on heart when they’re hit with the injury bug and their backs were against the wall, they looked remarkably uninterested.

Is there an explanation for this? Has Pat Quinn’s message grown tired? Do they just not have the horses to compete with a top team? I don’t have the answers, but I’m sure those very questions will be repeated ad nauseam on message boards, in the Toronto media, and on sports call in shows over the next week.

I will say, as poorly as he played, I actually felt bad for Belfour. When a goalie is having an offnight, is it not protocol to pull him so he can retain some semblance of his pride? Did Quinn decide the code didn’t apply because Belfour’s effort was lacking? Was he trying to send a message by humiliating him out there? Again, I’m sure this won’t be the last we hear of these questions.

UP NEXT:

Ottawa has a potentially tough stretch coming up, so they’ll need to keep the ball rolling or could very easily find themselves in another mini slump. First up are the struggling Montreal Canadiens.

After starting the season like gangbusters, the Habs has cooled off quite a bit and going into last night’s game against Minnesota, had only won four of their last 14. That said, they’ve always played the Senators tough and will likely be looking to snap out of their losing streak with a big win.

Are You Ready?








Not to be overly dramatic about a game in mid-December, but tonight's contest between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators, round 4 of the Battle Of Ontario, has an entire city buzzing.

And it should.

In case you forgot how it went the last time these teams met, let me remind you. To say it was a dominating effort wouldn't be doing it justice. The Ottawa Senators beat the shit out of the Leafs on national TV, in their own building, in front of their own fans.

But that was then, this is now. A lot has changed since then. Or at least, as much change as possible in six weeks.

Ottawa had the best month in the history of the franchise in November, tearing up the league and doing to others what they did that faithful night at the ACC. However, when the calendar turned to December, the team seemed to lose an edge. They've gone 3-2-2 this month and when matched up against top teams of the Western Conference, looked overmatched.

But they've been doing it all shorthanded. Martin Havlat's injury has been well documented, but it's worth noting that six of the team's seven losses has come with "Mach 9" on the sidelines. The secondary scoring that was supposed to step up and fill the holes left by Havlat's absence have been unable to do so on a consistent basis.

As well, a freak knee injury that was supposed to keep Wade Redden out for a week had him watching from upstairs for over 20 days. Redden will play tonight. Some have remarked that you don't know what you have 'til it's gone in regards to Redden, and it's true. Though his play often isn't as flashy as we would like, his role on this team has been huge, and it's no coincedence the powerplay struggled horribly in his absence.

On the other side of the ice, since that thrashing on HNIC at the hands of the Senators, the Leafs haven't been the same. At times, they look like a club capable of playing with any other team in the NHL and contending for a top spot in the conference. Other times, though, the Buds barely look like a playoff team.

This inconsistency has, I imagine, driven their fans insane.

As big part of the last game was Brian McGratton knocking Tie Domi the fuck out. Unless you've been a part of the BoO, you couldn't understand how significant that KO truly was. If you were hoping for round two tonight, and a repeat of the same performane, you'll be disappointed, because Domi is out of the lineup. As as Nik Antropov and Eric Lindros.

Combined with the fact that Mats Sundin has been struggling badly since coming back from that horrific eye injury he suffered on opening night, playing so inconsistently that he's almost become the posterchild for their play this season, and the reality that Ed Belfour is hurt with a groin injury in addition to his own unsteady play between goal, you would think the Leafs are ripe for the taking. That another humiliation is in the cards, this time in front of Sens fans.

But we've learned better. Pat Quinn and his minions are like the cockroach that will not die. No matter how much you stomp on it, it lives. Counting out the Leafs, even with their depleted lineup and superstars underperforming, is a mistake Senators fans have made one too many times before. They've seen this story, with different actors, and now how horrible it can end and refuse to allow themselves to fall into that trap.

However, this feels different. Do the Leafs own the Senators when it matters most? Yes. It's a reality Senators fans have had to live with every day for the last five years. It wakes us up in our sleep screaming.

So what happens tonight, you ask? A Sens win. 5-2.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Something to be worried about?

Zdeno Chara's agent Matt Keator on October 11th

"We haven't had any talks with Ottawa lately and that's kind of been by design because we're not in any hurry," said Chara's agent Matt Keator.

"We've agreed we're going to talk at some point. (Chara) has made it pretty clear he wants to stay in Ottawa and we'll see what happens."

Today's Ottawa Citizen:

Keator said there were no immediate plans to talk to Senators general manager John Muckler about a new contract.

"Right now, Zdeno's focus is on the team, on winning the Stanley Cup," the agent said.

As recently as a few months ago, Muckler pointed to January as a date when he would start talking with the agents of Chara and Wade Redden about new deals, since apparently part of the CBA says that's the earliest a potential UFA can sign a contract with his club.

I would think "immediate plans" would be in the next month, right?

While everyone is gushing about the news of increased revenues, and thus, an inflated salary cap next year, and how it gives the Sens more room to sign Chara and Redden, many seem to be ignoring the fact it also gives every other team more room as well. More money to throw at guys like Chara.

Yes, Zdeno Chara says he wants to stay in Ottawa, but so did Marian Hossa. But then he added a little amendment: he wanted to stay in Ottawa and be paid "Jarome Iginla money", knowing full well the team could not give him that kind of cake and keep the rest of the core together. He's now in Atlanta doing very well individually but playing for a team that, if the playoffs started tomorrow, would be on the outside looking in.

Athletes always talk about wanting to stay here or there, but ultimately, it also always comes down to money. Hedging bets that Zdeno Chara and/or Wade Redden will be the exception to this rule is setting yourself up for disappointment.

And why do I imagine Keator saying "Right now, Zdeno's focus is on the team, on winning the Stanley Cup" with dollar signs in his eyes? Did he follow it up with "Cha-Ching!"?

Or am I just out of my mind?

Dallas 2 Ottawa 0

THE GOOD:

Taking the body. Physically, Ottawa dominated the Stars from start to finish, and by the end, you could tell that Dallas was feeling it as they were more reluctant to go into the corners after lose pucks.

Antoine Vermette. Vermette showed more vigor last night than any other game in a while, and made a case that he deserves to be promoted back up to a line that gets more ice time. A case could be made that he was Ottawa’s best forward. He was strong on the forecheck, played the body and finished all his checks, and was skating very well for the majority of the game and was a big part of the penalty killing unit.

THE BAD:

Bad officiating. Just read what I’ve written for the past two weeks. I’ve grown very tired of repeating myself and even more frustrated that it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

Too many penalties. Tied into above, and the same applies.

Missing the net so often. I don’t think the NHL tracks missed shots, but without looking at any statistics, I think it’s safe to say that last night Ottawa was firing more errant shots than ever. Dany Heatley in particular had to have missed four, including two that would’ve been great scoring opportunities, but he was not alone, as other Senators forwards were missing their mark with regularity. Maybe Bryan Murray needs to break out those shooting targets we all used as kids because this group sure looks to need it. I also blame those fucking composite sticks, as guys have so much power at their disposal they take basic wrist shots and the puck ends up in hitting the glass. If Ottawa was getting more pucks on net, maybe they would’ve gotten the breaks Dallas did with their goals.

The broken coverage on the goals Dallas scored. Neither one of the Stars’ goals were particularly good, but rather the result of hard work from their forwards, going heavy to the net, and the Senators players losing track of who they were supposed to take. I felt bad for Ray Emery on the first goal because it was just a bad break, and he deserved better than that, but the second was not one he’d be proud of.

Lack of finish from the supporting cast. These guys didn’t do much to strike down the notion that John Muckler needs to trade for some secondary scoring, which was disappointing because a lot of them were quite good Monday night in Colorado. Now it has to be done with some consistency.

THE OPPOSITION:

Having come off a loss the night before against the red hot Buffalo Sabres, you could see Dallas lacked that extra jump in their stride that’s been there during their recent success. In that sense, they did not live up to the hype as being among the Western's best.

That said, a win is a win is a win, so you cannot be too critical, especially when a team comes into Ottawa and gets the W. But last night was a perfect example, to me anyway, of a club that scratched and clawed and held on for dear life. The Stars got a lucky break on a first goal as far as the puck going in, but deserve credit for the second effort of getting to the net, and once they got that lead, they fell back and played some of the most conservative hockey I’ve seen a top team play this season in My NHL. It wasn’t quite the Jacques Lemaire Trap, but they only had one forechecker for most of the game and often it wasn’t an aggressive persuit.

They finished with 29 shots on goal, but I imagine that statistic is somewhat misleading. Because they had 10 powerplays including a 5-on-3 that lasted over a minute and a stretch of four straight minutes with the man advantage due to a bad call on Bryan Smolinski that he argued and got the extra 2 for unsportsmanlike conduct. That was more about frustration than anything else I think. Even though Dallas outshot Ottawa, I don't think anyone who saw the game would even try to argue that they outplayed them.

But alas, credit is due, they played their game and got the two points. I liked the games of their big players, as Sergei Zubov was excellent in both ends of the ice, logging over 28 minutes, Mike Modano was very explosive for a 35-year-old guy everyone had written off six months ago, and Marty Turco made big saves in key moments to solidify himself as a legitimate contender for a spot on Team Canada in Turin.

UP NEXT:

Some team comes to town. More on that later.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Update from the ER

While both Jason Spezza and Wade Redden are doubtful for tomorrow's game against the Dallas Stars, #6 might be the better bet. He did skate in today's practice, while Spezza sat out. Spezza himself seems to be looking to the much more high profile Battle Of Ontario Saturday night affair as his return date.

"Part of the problem is that we've been flying a lot," said Spezza. "I'd like to play against Dallas, but it might make more sense to come back Saturday. We're just going to have to wait to see how it reacts in the next couple of days."

Meanwhile, Martin Havlat had surgery on his shoulder yesterday in Cleveland and all accounts are it was a success.

In a related note, I stubbed my toe something terrible this morning when getting out of bed. We're cursed I tell you, cursed.

UPDATE: It gets worse. Chris Kelly is now also questionable for Thursday's game to a foot injury. Even though he's a fourth line player, Kelly takes a lot of key faceoffs and kills a ton of penalties, so his absence will hurt them.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Ottawa 6 Colorado 2

THE GOOD:
The kids are alright. Last night, the Senators suited up with six rookies in the line-up (seven if you include Ray Emery serving as the back-up) and all of them stepped up for the occasion. Andrej Meszaros has been the Sens best defenceman not named Zdeno Chara for this roadtrip, Patrick Eaves is always solid when called upon, Brandon Bochenski was at least noticeable out there, Brian McGratton fulfilled his role, Chris Kelly killed a gang of penalties, and Christoph Schubert was quite good in both ends of the ice, setting a physical tone early on. The freshmen accounted for three of the team’s six goals and combined for seven points. Not too shabby.

The penalty killing. Ottawa has been far too undisciplined as of late, but luckily, their PK unit, which mostly consists of a rotation of Chris Kelly, Mike Fisher, Peter Schaefer, Antoine Vermette, and Daniel Alfredsson up front with Zdeno Chara and Chris Phillips playing the bulk of the time on the backend, has bailed them out significantly.

Exploding in the third period. It was a nice contrast to Saturday night’s contest in Calgary that they saved the best for last. Ottawa is, after all, the highest scoring third period team in the NHL, and showed last night that they can bury you if given the opportunity, even with many of their weapons on the sidelines.

Big balls. It was a rough and tumble game for the first two periods, when each team was battling for positioning, and as a result, some cuts and scratches are inevitable. Schaefer got an elbow/stick combo from Marek Svatos to the face for a gash that makes Mike Fisher’s from the other night look tame. He got stitched up, strapped on a visor and was back out in no time. Later on, Bryan Smolinski, who many including myself have criticized for being too soft and timid, went to block a shot and got it in the back of his end. He too needed some stitching, but was out on the ice shortly and even scored a goal. Speaking of which…

Bryan Smolinski stepping up. I kinda sorta scoffed when hearing that Smolinski would be moving up to the top line to fill Jason Spezza’s spot and play with Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley. As far as production, “Smoke” has been horribly inconsistent this season so I think my skepticism was warranted. However, I’m glad to say I was wrong. He elevated his game in a major way and probably had his best outing of the season. He was making crisp passes, the kind that Spezza was making before this weekend, and even played the body slightly.

The end of Dany Heatley’s slump. Going three games without netting a goal isn’t a big deal, let alone a slump, to most players, but for Heatley this season, it was. So it was nice to see him get a goal and an assist to snap out of it. A big part of why he was able to produce again, I thought, was because Colorado’s lack the defence that will make life difficult for him the way the Canucks and Flames did. They’re much less physical and Heatley eats those chances up.

THE BAD:

The powerplay. They really miss Wade Redden. They went 2 for 9 last night, so it wasn’t a disaster, but on most of the opportunities where they didn’t score, it was not a pretty sight. They were having a hard time keeping the puck in the Avalanche zone, their work along the boards was not strong enough, they were fumbling the puck, their passes were not on the money, and generally, they were trying to force plays. The even had three offsides called on them with the man advantage last night, something that I know had to make Bryan Murray’s blood boil.

The officiating. I realize I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but wow, the referees were brutal last night. On both sides. They called a stupid goaltender interference infraction on Antoine Vermette when the Colorado goalie wasn’t even in the crease (a recurring theme last night), Pierre Turgeon got a terrible interference penalty called on him that looked very questionable, and there were missed calls all night long (Mike Fisher’s slewfoot on John-Michael Liles being the most noteworthy). No wonder the players are having a hard time adjusting to the new rules. They don’t know what the fuck a penalty is. If they get away with something all night, they’re right to assume “okay, this is how the game is being called”, but then, when the refs go ahead and make an iffy call, they put into question the precedent they had set the entire game. The referees were in position to see a lot of the stuff that went uncalled, so you cannot say they didn’t see it.

Soft goals on Hasek. Overall, he played well, but those two goals were not exactly highlight reel caliber and I imagine Hasek was kicking himself after each. However, both were a result of someone going hard to the net and making it difficult for him, so the Ottawa defencemen obviously didn’t do their jobs on those plays.

THE OPPOSITION:

If I was an Avs fan, the one thing I’d take out of last night’s game, and be most concerned about, was the ease in which they folded the tent once Ottawa scored the goals to take the lead in the third period. When Patrick Eaves scored to make it 4-2, they were still six minutes left in the game. In the new NHL, that’s plenty of time to score. Colorado had many weapons capable of lighting the lamp. You’d think they’d pore it on to try and get back into the game.

Instead, the looked to lose their will to play, and Ottawa capitalized, adding to their total by two on goals that were picture perfect examples of an opponent playing without any desire. Watch the highlights on those last two goals and you’ll see nothing but Colorado Avalanche players standing around, half assign it, just trying to get out of there.

If last night was a statement game for the Avs the way the two on the weekend were up in Western Canada, then the statement the Colorado Avalanche made was that they don’t have half the heart they used to.

And it was unfortunate, because they had been playing a pretty sound game up to that point. Not spectacular, and certainly not up to their billing as an exciting, run and gun club, but they were in the game and with a bounce here or there could’ve had the lead.

UP NEXT:

Ottawa finally returns home to the warm comforts of the Corel Centre, but the opponent doesn’t get any easier. The Dallas Stars, who are probably the hottest team in the NHL right now, come to town on Thursday and you know they, like Calgary and Vancouver, will want to prove they can not only hang with the league’s best team but that they’re better.

They’re getting terrific goaltending from Marty Turco and their veterans are really playing well, which I have to admit, surprises me somewhat because I thought a lot of those guys would be on their last legs this season. Instead, they look invigorated and should be a handful for a still depleted Ottawa line-up. Early indications are that Jason Spezza will not be back in the mix, and I’ve given up my day-to-day watch on Wade Redden. It’s best to assume they won’t be playing at this point.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Poor Patrick


According to a story in today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Blues are on the verge of unloading Patrick Lalime.

The team is expected to make a move regarding Lalime as soon as today.

The Blues have a few options, including trading the seven-year veteran or placing him on waivers. General manager Larry Pleau would not confirm Sunday that one of those transactions was about to take place.

You have to feel a little bit sorry for Lalime, don't you?

Now, I know for Sens fans, such a thought is blasphomy. Ever since the infamous Game 7 in Toronto, Lalime's name became akin to Satan in the Nation's Capital. He, along with Jacques Martin and to a lesser extent Radek Bonk, became the scapegoat for this teams failure to live up to the lofty but reasonable expectations we all had.

Since Dominik Hasek has come into town and won even his biggest doubters over with his stellar play, it's not uncommon to hear a fan say "I wonder where we'd be if we had goaltending like this all those years."

It's a fair point on the one hand, but I also think it diminishes Lalime's contributions to this team. Was he an elite goalie? Of course not. But with the exception of the 2003-04 season, he also wasn't a mediocre one. He was a solid 'tender made to look better by an excellent defence, a defensively responsible forward core, and a coach who emphasized defence over scoring.

But what seperates Lalime from the other scapegoats, I think, is that it was never a question of effort with Patrick. What frustrated fans about Radek Bonk was that he often looked like he wasn't trying all that hard (probably because he genuinely wasn't). He seemed more interested in collecting his paycheck than doing what it took to win. Jacques Martin made one critical error after another and refused to agknowledge he had until it was too late. By then his only recourse was to put his hands in his pockets and stare at the scoreboard, an act that I'm sure has gone over as well down in Florida with the struggling Panthers as it did here.

Patrick Lalime just played poorly at the worst possible times. That happens. It was never because he wasn't giving it 100%.

Even more than all his on ice accomplishments though, Lalime was well respected in the community as a super guy. He did a ton of charity work, and whenever the Senators were involved in some local activity, he was always at the center of it. In that sense, he sort of became the face of the franchise.

It's unfortunate that he's had such a difficult time since leaving.

UPDATE: TSN.ca is reporting that the Blues have in fact placed Lalime on waivers. With his $2.432 million salary, it's doubtful any team will claim him. Odds are he's done for this season.

In a strange twist of fate, Martin Prusek, who served as Lalime's backup for two years in Ottawa, was also placed on waivers by his team, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Calgary 2 Ottawa 1 (OT)

THE GOOD:

Ray Emery. Despite giving a up a goal late in the game, and then another in overtime, to give the Flames the W, I thought Emery played very well last night. He didn’t make a lot of the highlight reel caliber saves that Hasek did the night before, but that was largely because he was in good position all night and didn’t need to. It often seems like the puck is hitting Emery rather than him stopping it, but that’s more because he’s exceptional at positioning himself and is rarely caught off guard. I actually think it’s good Emery got a loss as he’s noted for being an terrible loser. He’ll likely use the defeat as motivation.

Zdeno Chara. Playing over 30 minutes for the second straight night, Chara was a dominant force yet again. He was matched up against the big line very often, and when he wasn’t, it was because Daryl Sutter wisely changed his lines to avoid that match-up.

Chris Phillips. Chara’s defensive partner had an equally impressive game. He was likely motivated by the fact he had tons of family and friends in the crowd watching. He logged over 25 minutes, threw his weight around, and blocked six shots.

THE BAD:

No forwards stepping up. With Martin Havlat out of the line-up, the Senators will need the remaining pieces to elevate their game to make up for his absence. Someone has to make up the goals they don’t have anymore because Havlat’s on the sidelines. Short term, it looked like Brandon Bochenski was going to be that guy, and that’s certainly what GM John Muckler was banking on. He dismissed any trade rumors and gave the rookie a vote of confidence, but since scoring a hat trick Monday night in Florida, Bochenski hasn’t had much of an impact, only solidifying my contention that he’s too streaky a scorer to be depended on as the next in line. However, as I’ve said, the burden shouldn’t fall solely on Bochenski, as the other, more experienced guys will needed to increase their contributions. The only one who seems to have gotten this memo is Peter Schaefer. The other veterans, Vaclav Varada and Bryan Smolinski especially, have been very disappointing on this road trip. Smolinski’s role as a two-way center was fine and well when they had other players to score, but when you lose a 30 goal scorer, his role was rewritten.

The refereeing. It wasn’t why they lost, as Ottawa got a few bad calls their own way, but it was incredibly frustrating to watch the game be torn apart by awful officiating. Calgary got away with at least two high sticks, including one on Zdeno Chara by Rhett Warrener (how high does your stick have to be to hit a 6’9” guy in the face?), and a few of the “hooking” penalties were absolute bullshit on both sides. This was the same officiating crew that ripped the flow out of a game between two of the NHL’s most exciting teams the night before by instituting a nonstop parade to the box. What was especially bad about last night was there was zero consistency with the calls. What was a penalty one minute wasn’t the next. Maybe this is why Ottawa is having such a hard time adjusting to this “new NHL”. How are they supposed to know what’s a penalty when they get away with something twice and then get called on it a third time?

The decision not to bring an extra forward on this road trip. Allow me to rant for a second, please. Going into this season, John Muckler said the team was going to carry the bare minimum of 20 players due to cap reasons. Even though Ottawa was not close to the cap even with a 23 man roster. I was skeptical of this decision, but alas, went along. They then decided to keep Christoph Schubert because there was a fear they’d lose him for nothing on the waiver market. They were probably right, and Schubert has been excellent when called upon. With Binghamton so close to Ottawa, I accepted the call to not have an alternate forward around. But when you’re going across the country, why not bring an insurance policy? What’s this going to cost the team? A couple tens of thousands of dollars? What happened if an injury occurred? They couldn’t do what they did the last time a situation arose and Chris Neil’s mother died, when they inserted Schubert into the line-up as a forward. We almost saw this disaster occur last night when Spezza was a game-time decision due to a hip flexer. Stop playing with fire, Muckler. You’re going to get burned sooner or later.

Not matching Calgary’s emotion. As was the case Friday night against Vancouver, Calgary seemed to treat this game as a much bigger event that the Senators, who appeared to approach it as just another game. Calgary brought playoff like intensity, but the same can’t be said for Ottawa. Instead, with a few exceptions (Chara, Phillips, Andrej Meszaros, Chris Neil), there was a general level of indifference. It was very disappointing. Especially alarming was how they were able to neutralize Spezza by taking the body on him. I realize he was hurt, but it doesn’t bode well for the playoffs that he was taken out of the equation so easily at even strength.

THE OPPOSITION:

Calgary’s clearly a team that is still playing in the old NHL. Despite a hard forecheck, they don’t take the kind of chances to score that most teams do these days. But make no mistake, they’re a bitch to play against, and coming off a big game the night before against Vancouver, Ottawa was in over their head before the puck was even dropped.

The characteristic that most impressed me about Calgary, though, is how they forced Ottawa to play their game. Some have complimented the Sens by noting that they’re able to beat you anyway you want. And they almost did last night. But the Flames plucked away, played their game, and finally buried one of their chances. But the time they scored, I was resigned to the fact that they were going to win. Ottawa was clearly out of gas, registering only five shots in the third period. By then, I was just hoping Ottawa would take it to OT or a shootout, where they can at least get a point.

One note I do want to make is that Dion Phaneuf is no hype. Last night was the fourth game I’d seen him play, and by far his best.

UP NEXT:

It might be a stretch to suggest that Monday’s game in Denver against the Colorado Avalanche is a must-win, but you’d think the Senators want to go back home with at least one win. Colorado doesn’t seem to be on the same level as the Canucks and Flames, but it should still be a difficult game as they have a ton of weapons that can bury you if you allow them to. Meaning, Ottawa needs to curb their penalties somehow or Colorado will light them up. They can’t depend on Hasek to bail them out the way he did Friday night with any regularity, nor can they rely on the fact that Colorado won’t capitalize on all the PP chances the way Calgary was unable to.

Wade Redden might be back, but he might not. Quite frankly, I’ve grown incredibly frustrated with his nonchalant, shrug of the shoulders “I might play, but we’ll see how I feel” attitude. I thought that bullshit left town with Jacques Martin. While I don’t think he should be rushed back, Wade Redden at 80% is still a valuable asset to this team. Get in there and play already.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Vancouver 3 Ottawa 2 (SO)

THE GOOD:

The playoff-like atmosphere. Even though it was a game in early December that, ultimately, will have little implications, it sure felt like it was a whole lot more important. Even watching it on TV, over 3000 miles away, I could feel the excitement.

Dominik Hasek. Despite starting slow, Hasek was in rare form last night. He was the team’s best penalty killer in the sense that he made a gang of massive, timely saves that kept them in a game they otherwise might not have had any business being in. I’ve said it before, so I might as well chime in again: Dominik, please, stay in your net. I know, I know, who am I to tell a surefire Hall Of Famer what to do, but it hurts my insides every time I see him wonder out of the net. I get that he wants to challenge the opposition, but he should pick and chose his spots.

Andrej Meszaros. With Wade Redden still out with that injury (and not all that committed to coming back early, it seems), the rookie has been forced to take on a bigger role with the team and has responded wonderfully. This is not to say he was without his errors. He made a terrible giveaway in the Sens’ end, as well as blowing a tire earlier in the game, allowing a Canucks forward to go in alone on a breakaway, but those gaffs were few and far between. The rest of the game, he was horse, logging over 24 minutes of ice time. He also finally scored his first NHL goal, and though it wasn’t pretty, it was an example of what the Senators should’ve been doing more last night: he simply threw the puck on the net, got a lucky bounce, and bam, red light. It says a lot about how much Murray and the coaching staff thinks of him that they put him into Redden’s spot on the point with the man advantage.

Peter Schafer’s shorthanded goal. Schaefer has been a popular target of Bryan Murray, who’s been on him to shoot more since he took over the reigns. Schaefer has always been pass happy, and when you’re playing with a sniper like Martin Havlat, but with Havlat out until the playoffs (we hope), Schaefer might as well start firing the puck. He did last night, and sure enough, it went in.

Getting a point. If we’re trying to be glass half full, then the fact Ottawa got one point in a game they likely didn’t deserve it has to be seen as a positive.

THE BAD:

Way too many damn penalties. Going into last night’s game, Ottawa was the 4th most penalized team in the NHL, and after all the time they spent in the sin bin in Vancouver, I’d wager they’re now in the top 3. And what makes it worse is, most of the penalties were not good ones to take. A few of the 13 (yes, 13) they were issued were iffy calls, but the truth is that went both ways, as the officiating was very inconsistent. Most of them, however, were just bad plays. The Canucks were outskating Ottawa and getting loose pucks with regularity, and too often, the Sens’ response was to obstruct them. I don’t like that a lot of these are now penalties, but the reality is, they are, so the Senators need to break these old habits and get with the times. It sure seemed last night like a lot of Ottawa players were stuck in the old NHL. Mike Fisher took four penalties alone. It was not a good night, and I’m sure Bryan Murray gave them a tongue lashing after the game that would make his assault on Jim Fox look tame. And they deserve it.

Jason Spezza. I don’t know what was wrong with #19 last night, but to say he was off his game wouldn’t be doing his performance justice. Throughout this season, he’s had a few games where he’s made a couple boneheaded plays, whether they be errant passes or ill-timed attempts to stickhandle through 20 guys, and every time I jumped all over him for it, but last night was easily the worst. His passes were sloppy all night long, missing their intended targets and quite regularly leading to giveaways. He also didn’t register a shot all night long. Like Schaefer, he fancies himself a passer not a shooter, and that’s fine, but when he has good opportunities, he needs to fire that puck instead of trying to dish it off. He capped the night off with the world’s best Jason Allison impression during the shootout. I thought my TV had gone into slow motion. As a whole, it was Spezza’s worst game of the season.

Only playing Christoph Schubert 7 minutes. I have to question the wisdom of the coaching staff on this one. I’ve been very impressed with Schubert this season, as he’s incredibly solid in his own zone and isn’t afraid to join the attack when the opportunity arises. Why did they bench him? Did he make a bad play that I missed? The aforementioned Fisher took four bad penalties and still played 19 minutes.

THE OPPOSITION:

Having only seen the Canucks a handful of times prior to last night, I had no real sense of how good a team they were. If last night was their measuring stick, they’re quite good, but still have some issues I’d be concerned about if I was a ‘Nucks fan.

For one, their powerplay. Ottawa handed them the game with their lack of discipline, yet Vancouver couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities. A big part of that was Hasek standing on his head, but they still needed to finish much better. I must say though, I thought former Sens defenceman Sami Salo, who I was never all that fond of during his time in the nation’s capital, was a monster playing the point on the PP. He was moving the puck like Nick Lidstrom and made at least a dozen good plays at the blueline to keep the puck in the zone.

For a game that hyped largely on the match-up between the two big lines, I didn’t think the Markus Naslund-Brendan Morrison-Todd Bertuzzi trio looked much better than Ottawa’s top three. Neither were the force you might expect. Instead, it was the Sedin twins who were the straws that stirred the Canucks attack last night. They looked to have come a long way even from last season.

UP NEXT:

No time to dwell on their poor performance, as it’s back at it in Calgary on national TV tonight. On the one hand, I think getting back to it so soon is a good thing. They’re a team that, when defeated, likes to get the train going again, as seen last week when they were dominated by the Bruins and then came back 24 hours later to beat up the L.A. Kings in every sense of the word.

Having said that, they’re bound to be an exhausted bunch. Killing penalties takes a lot out of a team, and Ottawa was forced to kill a bunch of them. They had five players over 20 minutes last night, and three more within 90 seconds of 20 minutes. We’ll have to hope that they’ll get by on adrenaline and a desire to redeem themselves because there likely isn’t much gas left in the tank of key guys like Chara (who played 32 minutes) and Alfredsson (who played 27).

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Talk about opposite ends of the class spectrum

If you want evidence on what a pro Steve Yzerman is for bowing out of the Team Canada mix and taking the burden off of Wayne Gretzky and company for having to remove the legend, all you have to do is look at how Jeremy Roenick is conducting himself.

Veteran Jeremy Roenick, meanwhile, has publicly campaigned to be named to the Olympic team.

"I better be," the Kings centre told the Los Angeles Times. "It would be a travesty if I'm not. I know they want a youth movement, and they need to have one, but it'd be disrespectful of the guys who have gotten Team USA to this point internationally."

While Yzerman is respectful and humble, Roenick is obnoxious and abrasive. While Yzerman is man enough to realize he’s no longer worthy of a spot on the team if the measuring stick is what he can contribute, Roenick is clearly in a bad state of denial. While Yzerman doesn’t want to rest on laurels, Roenick seems to think he’s entitled to a spot because of what he’s accomplished in the past.

Newsflash J.R.: if we’re picking Team USA based on performance, and not what you did nine years ago, you’re not even in the mix, let alone on the shortlist.

Roenick’s 12th in scoring on the Kings, and of the American forwards in the NHL, is 21st. I’ve only seen him play once this year, but according to those who have seen Roenick and the Kings with some regularity, he’s looked a step slower than the rest on a consistent basis.

Apparently, that’s not enough for Jeremy Roenick. He deserves to be there.

Have Roenick and his peers (Mike Modano, Tony Amonte, Brett Hull, John LeClair, Chris Chelios, Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk, Derian Hatcher, etc.) done a lot for Team USA as far as getting them “to this point”? Sure. That World Cup win back in 1996 will always be etched in my mind.

But if I’m not mistaken, it was also Roenick and company who were in the middle of the controversy back at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano when, after a loss that knocked team out of contention, still unidentified Team USA players, with apparent hurt vaginas, went back to their dorm rooms and threw hissy fits like little girls, breaking the furniture in their Olympic Village room.

If you recall, Doug Weight rationalized it as such:

"People think we were hammered and destroying furniture, but that's not true," Weight said before leaving Nagano.

After the loss, he said, players and families went to a karaoke restaurant. "We had a good time singing and drinking a few beers. We got back to the village late, some guys were wrestling and stuff, but that's it," Weight told the newspaper.

He disputed that the chairs were broken by rowdy players, saying: "We're big guys and the chairs aren't real strong. Some were broken while we were just sitting on them, playing cards."

So these chairs were just broken under the weight (no pun intended) of these guys. How they ended up in the courtyard, who knows. Apparently, in addition to the fragile chairs, the doors were quite brittle as well, as they had dents in them. I’m sure it was just from them walking through them.

Roenick had his own explanation:

"Maybe what they're talking about are the chairs. The chairs and furniture that we had were definitely not made for NHL players. The chairs would fall apart right there, just sitting on them. We went through nine chairs with five guys in the apartment. It was ridiculous."

I have no clue if Roenick was the one who acted like a child and embarrassed his entire country with his actions, but way he offered excuses, rather than expressing disgusting at the act the way some of his teammates did, was pretty telling.

Now, eight years later, he’s offended that they’re not showing loyalty to him, even though even the most uninformed outsider could see he simply doesn’t deserve a spot.

J.R., you might want to take some lessons on how to conduct yourself from Stevie Y. Would do you some good.

Oh shit or Martin Havlat is out indefinitely

Remember that worst case scenario? It’s come to fruition.

Late last night, Martin Havlat decided to go under the knife to correct his dislocated shoulder. He’ll be out of action at least three months, possibly four. Meaning, he’s out until either just before the playoffs start or right as they do.

Either way, this is a devastating blow to the Senators.

In Havlat, they had a proven 30-goal scorer as a secondary offensive weapon. When teams shut down The Line, and there will be games where they do, it would be nice to have someone who can light the lamp the way Havlat can.

Now, that’s gone. So what is John Muckler to do?

Short term, it looks like they’re going to be giving the ball to Brandon Bochenski. It’s hard to criticize that decision right now, when he’s coming off a hat trick, but we’ve come to learn that “Bo” is a streaky scorer and not someone who can be depended on for offense on a consistent basis.

So the burden shouldn’t fall solely on Bochenski. The rest of the players on the team will need to elevate their games in order to lighten the load. Bryan Smolinski has been playing a strong two-way game lately, after having started the season slowly, but he still isn’t contributing the offense they’ll need from him. Some of the guys who have been contributing, Mike Fisher, Peter Schaefer, Chris Neil will need to not only continue but kick it up a notch.

But what if that doesn’t work?

Some Senators fans have been clamoring for a legitimate second-line center since the beginning of the season. Smolinski was supposed to play that role but, again, he isn’t scoring enough to be considered a viable option. Mike Fisher is having a fantastic season and is always a force every night, but is he gifted enough around the net?

The Doug Weight rumors have been out there for a while. I’m sure the Blues would like to unload his big contract, which expires at the end of this season, and it likely wouldn’t cost a ton to get him. Getting Weight would allow them to move Fisher to the wing, a position moved he excelled in earlier in the season, and move Smolinski to the third line, where his lack of offence and defensive prowess is ideal.

Bruce Garrioach talks about some of the other options, including Todd Bertuzzi and/or Owen Nolan. I imagine getting Bertuzzi would cost too much going the other way, and could disrupt the team chemistry, and we all saw how much gas is left in Owen Nolan’s tank the last time there was hockey. Are we supposed to believe it’s any better 18 months later? Have we learned nothing from Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman, Mario Lemieux, Mats Sundin, etc.?

There is no easy answer to this problem. It would be foolish to bring in a big new contract if the other players are able to cover in Havlat’s absence. But at the same time, Muckler shouldn’t be too reluctant to make a move if it becomes obvious the plan isn’t working.

The first test will be this upcoming Western road trip that will see the Sens match-up against a few of the Western Conference’s best teams. We might not have to wait long to see which course of action they'll take.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Still playing The Waiting Game

We were supposed to learn today the extent of Martin Havlat's shoulder injury, and specifically, if surgery is required. If Havlat is forced to go under the knife, it's expected he'll be out until late March, just as the regular season is wrapping up.

Bryan Murray was on The Team 1200 this afternoon and basically said the decision will be left up to Havlat. He said sometime soon, once they get the final word from the doctors, he, John Muckler, Havlat, and his agent will have to get together and decide the best course of action.

One factor that cannot be ignored is that Havlat will be in line for a new contract at the end of this season, though because he'll be restricted, the Senators will still hold onto his rights.

Many fans feared that if Havlat had the season most expected in the new NHL which emphasizes speed, a forte of his, his contract demands would be so high that the Senators, who will already be in a tough spot trying to re-sign UFAs Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara, would not be able to pay him what he wanted and squeeze under the salary cap.

Now, with the possibility of Havlat maybe missing much of the regular season on the horizon, some are likely breathing a sigh of relief. Havlat won't have the statistics to be able to go to an arbitrator and say he deserves "x amount".

It's worth noting that before they dealt Marian Hossa to Atlanta for Dany Heatley, the Senators apparently came very close to trading Havlat to Carolina for Erik Cole. The word is that it was 'Canes GM Jim Rutherford who nixed the deal, if you can believe that.

How this all plays out will determine the course of action the Senators take. If Havlat is indeed out until late March, you have to think Muckler will explore the possibility of acquiring someone to fill the vacancy that Havlat leaves. Sure, Brandon Bochenski is red hot right now, and seems to be a suitable replacement, but we've learned by now that he's not exactly the most consistent option.

"The Waiting Game sucks. Let's play Hungry Hungry Hippos."

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