Sunday, February 12, 2006

Ottawa 3 Philadelphia 2

”Playing to win.” During their struggles, it was often said that the Senators were not playing to win, but instead, playing NOT to lose. This, of course, is no way for a supposed top club to play, and the results indicated that, as it rarely worked. The Sens didn’t resemble the confident, borderline cocky club that dominated in October and November, instead looking very fragile and shaky. Once one thing would go wrong, like a few goals scored against, they would not be able to recover, and the L was registered. This is a characteristic of a bad team, so to see it being displayed by a club that was considered the Stanley Cup favorite by most was very frustrating for its fans. We would regularly say “they need their confidence back”, and the players would as well, but unfortunately, it’s never been like a lightswitch, able to be turned on in the blink of an eye. I think this game will do a lot to restore it. Not only did they win, but they beat a club that had previously beat they them, once rather handedly, and did so playing the way they used to. It’s one thing to get two points against Pittsburgh, and even score seven goals in the process, but when you beat the Flyers (albeit a very bruised and battered version), it’s another thing. That third period was key and to me, defined the game. Ottawa had given up two goals, one of which was a bad one and the other a result of a bad bounce of Chris Phillips’ shin, and, in theory, should’ve been on the ropes. Philly should’ve had all the momentum, but it was the Senators were the dominant team, dictating the play and, for the most part, taking it to the Flyers.

The continuing emerge of Antoine Vermette as an impact player. A case could be made for the fact that Vermette has been Ottawa’s most consistent forward in the last month. He seems to have really embraced his role with this team, and proven why he shouldn’t be just a throw in on any potential deal the Senators may or may not make down the stretch to strengthen their team. His versatility, and ability to play a “jack-of-all-trades” type of role on this team cannot be undervalued. He usually looks most comfortable when there is a lot of ice, allowing him to utilize his speed, and most often this means either on the PK or when it’s 4-on-4. When at even strength, Vermette was never able to consistently duplicate that success, as it appeared he would stifled out there. However, as of late, he’s gone above and beyond the role of the fourth line forward who kills penaltys and chips in with the occasional goal. He’s become an intregal player, and last night was the best example. On a line with Vaclav Varada and Christoph Schubert (probably Ottawa’s best forward trio), he generated a lot of opportunities on the forecheck and drew a couple of penalties by simply moving his feet and forcing bigger but slower defenders coughDerianHatcher*cough* to impede him.

Beating a very good team in a close game. Dominik Hasek’s criticisms from a while back about this team being unable to win close, tight games was on point, and since then, they haven’t been able to prove him wrong. Last night’s win will hopefully start a trend.

Patrick Eaves’ work ethic. There wasn’t a harder working Senator on this night. I can’t recall one battle the 21-year-old lost out there. He strength on the puck, and ability to win one-on-one battles for it, remains a large part of his game and a reason why the future looks so bright for him in Ottawa. As he gets older, and his offensive touch develops even more (he already possesses an uncanny ability to go to the net), he may just become one of this team’s best players. Until then, however, he’s found a nice little role as a secondary piece of the puzzle, and seems quite comfortable both in that spot and on this team in general.

The physical game from Mike Fisher. Fish led all Sens in hits with five and that number seems low to me, because when watching, it sure seemed like it was more than that.

Not allowing Philadelphia to win the season series. If the Flyers had won last night, regardless of the result of the fourth and final meeting between the teams on March 25th in Philadelphia, Philly would’ve won the season series, something they haven’t done since 1997. As I mentioned the other day, Ottawa is a team that Philadelphia looks at as a dragon they need to slay, similar to the Leafs for the Sens (though I doubt to the same extent). It was Ottawa who knocked the Flyers out of the playoffs in both the 2002 (first round) and 2003 (second round) editions. Though it is very early, and a lot could change, these two teams look like the two favorites to meet in the Eastern Conference final (Carolina’s up there as well, of course, but they’re less playoff tested as a team), so it’s good Philly won’t have the psychological edge that they would’ve had they beaten Ottawa in the regular season series.

A better night from the key players. While not quite as dominant as they were earlier in the season, all of Ottawa’s best skaters had solid improved games. On the blueline, both Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden had strong games, making very few of the mistakes that have been far too prevelant during this slump. And most importantly, the Big Line had a much better game. Again, don’t break out the champagne just yet and plan those parade routes, because it was a far cry from where they were when they were the toast of the NHL, but I thought all three had good games, and importantly, had them together, unlike Thursday night against Atlanta where it wasn’t until they were broken up did their run of shitty play end. I also think it was important that Dany Heatley got a goal. He’s a goal scorer, and scoring is a massive part of his game, and so when he’s not scoring, he’s not effective. Frankly, the other parts of his game aren’t good enough that he can go four games without a goal and still be one of the team’s most played forwards. Hopefully, this opens the floodgates for Heater, and he goes back to being on a tear. Spezza wasn’t offensively as impressive as he can and should be, but his mistakes were kept to a minimum, so it was absolutely progress.


Having to play Dominik Hasek. Back in December, when it became clear that Hasek was the real deal this year and all those who said he still didn’t have “it” were wrong, one major point Bryan Murray made was that he wanted to be careful not to burn the 40 (now 41) year old netminder out with too many games. Looking at the schedule back then, it seemed as if these couple weeks before the Olympic break would be prime time for Ray Emery to get in there and allow Hasek some rest, seeing as how, if Hasek is the starter for the Czechs, he could play as many as eight games in 12 days should they go to the gold medal final. However, the combination of Emery’s unsteady play and the team’s overall slip in quality of play gave Murray no other option. In order to keep Ottawa a top the Northeast, he had to put the best possible line-up on the ice in the majority of the games. We can only hope Hasek doesn’t hit the wall because if so we’ll likely look back on this past month as a key turning point in their season. And if Alois Hadamczik, the Czech head coach in Turin, is reading this: please be a pal and make Tomas Vokoun the starter. Please?

A return of the “old NHL”. The referees must’ve got a memo to forget everything they’ve been doing for the past four-and-a-half months because there was more hooking, holding, and obstruction out there than I saw in a lot of games during the last season. That’s the only explanation I have for why so little was called. It was the Flyers who set this tone, and once they were getting away with it, it seemed as if the Senators said “well alright, now that we know the standard, we can do this too”. And they did, adjusting accordingly. To the referees credit, they were consistent with their calls, as they didn’t really resort to the old rules, but this wasn’t what I thought the “New NHL” was supposed to be about.

Another goose egg with the powerplay. It was a shame that Vermette was drawing these penalties because Ottawa wasn’t able to do shit with them. Bryan Murray may want to tinker with some of the pieces because it’s just not working. It didn’t end up costing them the game the way it did Thursday night because they were able to score at even strength but they were playing with fire.


The MVP for the Flyers was, without question, Antero Niittymaki, who was terrific in relief of Robert Esche. If not for him, the score would’ve been far less flattering to them. He made a handful of big, highlight-reel caliber saves that kept them in the game. Unfortunately, the team in front of him couldn’t keep their foot on the gas pedal with any regularity.

It’s worth noting that this was not the real Flyers. Playing without Peter Forsberg, they’re a much different team, and with Foppa in the line-up, Simon Gagne is a whole lot less effective. Their middle, considered their strength going into the year, has also been handicapped by the loss of captain Keith Primeau, and now recent acquiree Petr Nedved went down. All these injuries forced Michael Handszus, a guy who’s probably the best third line center in the league, to be their top line middle man. On a team that’s contending, it’s a stretch to have him as the number two center. When you ask him to be on your top line, you’re asking for trouble. This isn’t to say he had a bad game, but rather that he’s just not equipped to handle this role. Especially when they have so little scoring along the wings.

As well, the injuries throw three rookies into the fire. On this night, I felt like all three of them (Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger, and Mike Richards) had good games, but it’s a big thing to ask of guys who, collectively, have maybe 100 NHL games played.

Their defence has also been mangled by injuries, as they’ve been without Kim Johnsson for some time now, and recently lost Mike Rathje. Again, this challenges their depth, and on this night, boy was it challenged. It didn’t help matters that Derian Hatcher took two bad penalties and, in general, struggled against the speedy Senators. It’s strange that in a game which so resembled the old NHL, one of the guys who was thought to struggle with the rules didn’t have a better game.

If you want an indication of how much their defensive depth was challenged, rookie Freddie Meyer IV played 23 minutes. Meyer is a good young player, and he has a bright future, but he’s not nearly good enough to handle that kind of load just yet.


The Olympics, and a nice break.


At 2:06 AM, Blogger James Mirtle said...

Yes, Meyer's been getting a ton of minutes lately.

I'll add another for 'The Bad': Jason Spezza in my hockey pools lately. Uuuugly.

At 11:18 AM, Anonymous Duff said...

I think the key to Ottawa's success in the playoffs will be the play of their rookies.The only concern I have is with our backup.Fix that and the Sens will be tough to beat!

At 1:43 PM, Anonymous SensGuy said...

Man was I pissed off that Volchenkov got moved down to the 3rd pairing. Hope he's right back with Redden after the break.

Vermette was awesome and Eaves looked good with Heatley and Spezza, even though Spezza sucked again.

At 3:02 PM, Anonymous Abby said...

The line was actually Vermette-Kelly-Schubert, not Varada. :)


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