Thursday, May 11, 2006

Ottawa 2 Buffalo 1

It turns out there is some life left in this horse after all.

I’ll be honest: I expected the Senators to lose tonight. Based on how dejected they looked and sounded after the OT loss last night and the franchise’s less than sparkling record of combating adversity in the playoffs, I thought they would not have an answer for a hungry Buffalo team and would roll over to die.

I’m glad to say I was wrong.

With a few exceptions, Ottawa played the way I thought they would Wednesday night in game 3. Determined, desperate, and dire. Buffalo brought it for most of the night and Ottawa answered the bell.

Some idiotic errors still lingered, but they were reduced greatly in comparison to the first three games of this series.

Every game in this series has been unique. Game 1 was about each team making errors and the other capitalizing on them. Game 2 saw Ottawa dominate in every area but the Sabres once again exploit a couple mistakes for big gains. Game 3 was a clusterfuck.

Game 4 was the first that saw both teams play at a high level for more than a couple minutes. The momentum switched back and forth. Ottawa was the much better team in the first and Buffalo didn’t have an answer but the Sabres came out flying for the second period and Ottawa was on their heels with no response.

I questioned the Sens heart based on their disheartening performance in game 3. I still wonder how this team, with their backs against the wall, could underperform to such an extent, however, they manned up tonight.

How much of that was because the pressure was diminished greatly, with everyone having written them off as done? I said last night that might be a reason for optimism. Is that valid?

And now where do you place Ottawa’s chances of coming back to win this series? They’re still in a massive hole that will be difficult to get out of but taking it one game at a time is the correct approach. The goal of winning the series is too daunting an objective at this point. Worry about winning shifts and periods and games and things will go well.

THE GOOD:

Ray Emery. My hero.Can we now cease with the “we need better goaltending” nonsense? And while we’re at it, the Dominik Hasek watch? Forget about that dick. Emery made all the big saves we’ve been clamoring for and then some. If it wasn’t for him, Buffalo would have been up big after the second period, a frame of 20 minutes they dominated. The Sabres could’ve been up four goals after the first period of game 3 if not for missing a bunch of backdoor plays. Ottawa got lucky. There was no luck involved here, but rather just a display of top notch goaltending from "Razor". He was positionally sound and in times when it looked like the rest of the team was panicking under pressure, Emery was calm, cool, and collected. It's said that playoffs are about goaltending and regardless of how well your team plays, if the other team's goalie is better than yours, your chances of winning are slim. Ray Emery was better than Ryan Miller.

Getting the first goal. Obviously, every team’s chances of winning a game increase when they get on the board first, but the Sens in particular are a club who are night and day when it comes to how they react to the first goal. It was an important moment in the game, and in retrospect, the most important of them all. Had Buffalo scored first, I’m not sure the Sens had the confidence to battle back the way they did in game three only to end up disappointed in the end. Buffalo is also very different with a lead versus how they play without it in terms of how aggressive they are and what that allows. When up a goal, they’re understandably much more conservative and have made it difficult for the Sens to get any sustained pressure. Starting off on this note again in game 5 will be of equal importance.

Christoph Schubert. Placed in for Vaclav Varada, I thought Schubert provided a lot of energy and jump with each shift. Towards the middle point of the period I asked myself why he wasn’t getting more ice time and then sure enough, a few minutes later, with the game in a 4-on-4 state, Schubert was paired with Martin Havlat (an odd but interesting duo) and he was excellent. Schubert battles hard, finishes each and every check and is probably their most consistent forechecker. You sacrifice some finish by putting Schubert on the ice because he’s still not great with the puck however he more than makes up for it in fight.

Anton Volchenkov’s desperation. Maybe he’s still feeling guilty for the game 1 gaff, but Volchenkov was diving all over the ice to block shots and do anything in his power to stop the puck from going in. On Daniel Briere’s goal, Anton leaped across the ice to try (unsuccessfully) to block it. On Maxim Afinogenov’s shot that will invariably be replayed on highlight shows across the country, it was Volchenkov buried inside the net in case the puck got by Emery. And let’s not forgot his monster sprawl that brokeup a 2-on-1 after Chris Phillips decided it wise to pinch. Dany Heatley was doing a good job backchecking on that particular play, so there’s no guarantee the Sabres forward would have received the pass, but Volchenkov wasn’t taking any chances. Made me proud to be a Sens fan the way this big Russian played.

The Antoine Vermette-Bryan Smolinski-Daniel Alfredsson line. All three had strong games. All three won the battles along the boards that the team lost with such ease in game three. There were no defensive breakdowns when they were tapped for a shift. I give Murray a lot of credit because this was not a move I would have made. I would’ve left Alfie with Spezza & Heatley. He wasn’t afraid to mix things up and try new combos. Smolinski & Alfredsson have never been able to develop good chemistry despite playing with each other a lot over the last three seasons but they looked pretty respectable

Chris Neil. No one told Neil this series was over, that’s for sure. His fight was off the charts. He was mixing it up at every whistle and was always hovering around Miller. Neil does a great job of pissing off the opposition and has drawn penalties throughout the series. Early in the game, he got under Afinogenov’s skin and the two were sent off for offsetting minors, a trade off I’m sure Bryan Murray would take every day of the week. Neil’s development from a middleweight tough guy who sees limited minutes into agitator who can add the odd goal this season has been interesting to watch.

THE BAD:

More missed shots. Ugh. Buffalo allows so few golden scoring chances that the ones you get, you have to make something of. If not a goal, at least register a shot and hope for a juicy rebound or a lucky bounce. Daniel Alfredsson missed two huge opportunities and continues to struggle when the rubber hits his tape. One of them was on a 2-on-1 where he elected to shoot and missed big, and the other was on a powerplay when Alfie pinched in from the point. After these two it seemed as Alfredsson got the message and stopped trying to pick corners, instead content getting the puck on net. Let’s hope this trend continues.

Martin Havlat. Apparently “Mach 9” missed the memo that this was a do or die game because I saw zero from Havlat to reflect that state. I don’t think Havlat won more than a couple battles in corners or along the boards for the entire game. I realize he’s a finesse player, and is on a line with two guys who are better known for their grit, but Havlat’s going to have to match it every now and then for this team to prosper. This looked like a middle of November game from Martin Havlat. That has to change.

Lazy chops at the puck. Seriously, what is this? Dany Heatley, Peter Schaefer, Zdeno Chara and a few others whose names I can’t recall at this moment all fell victim to giving into the easy way. Instead of muscling a Sabres skater off the puck in order to end the pressure, they avoided physical contact, stayed away, and chopped at the puck hoping and praying it would be effective. It was rarely was. Shocking, I know. They cannot be afraid of a little hard work.

THE OPPOSITION:

Buffalo came to win, so their fans cannot complain about them lacking the killer instinct or the desire to stick the knife in the heart of the Senators. Ottawa, on this particular night, just wanted it a little bit more, and that’s the way it should be when they’re down 0-3 and are facing the end of their season.

The Sabres were all over the Sens in the last five minutes and it seemed inevitable they would tie the game, at which point I think they would’ve carried that momentum over into OT.

The Daniel Briere line really took their game to a new level once again and off all forward lines, on either club, they were responsible for the most scoring chances. I expect that to continue with game 5.

One difference I did see in this game as opposed to the last was Buffalo's defencemen were not as steady in their own end. Some of that was because the Sens came harder and more often, but mistakes were made by veterans like Teppo Numminen, Rory Fitzpatrick, and Toni Lydman that weren't there before.

As big a game as Saturday night's contest will be for Ottawa, obviously, it's also essential for Buffalo to win, I think. Ottawa racks up another W and suddenly the seeds of doubt are planted in Buffalo's mind. Can they finish the job? Have they developed their own case of chokeitis?

Even though they have a couple veterans, as a whole they're a young bunch and while that can be a positive as far as no baggage it also leaves them prone to doubting themselves. They don't have anything to feed off from their past beyond the last series.

9 Comments:

At 12:26 AM, Anonymous SensGuy said...

I don't understand how Havlat can be so bad. The Sabres play the exact style that Havlat does, yet he's been useless so far.

And while were at it, is Heatley aware the playoffs have started?

Emery was great tonight. We're going to need more production from the forwards, because defenseman have scored 3 of our last 5 goals.

 
At 1:04 AM, Blogger CMcMurtry said...

Heatley refuses to hit, which is so funny because back when the trade was made, so many pundits chimed in that Heatley wouldn't fold in the playoffs like Hossa did (not that he in fact did, but that's the perpeption) because he's a "power forward".

He has size but Dany Heatley is most certainly not a power forward. At least not with any consistency.

 
At 7:03 AM, Blogger Steve C said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 7:06 AM, Blogger Steve C said...

Volchenkov was a little too desperate out there. When he dove trying to stop Briere's wrap-around, he collided with Emery and stopped Ray from making the save. Leave the goaltending to Ray, who was excellent.

Volchenkov should have lined up Briere and made him pay the price for coming out from behind the net.

 
At 8:46 AM, Blogger Bill W said...

Good assessment, it was mostly an even game, but Emery was the difference.

 
At 8:51 AM, Blogger LC Scotty said...

I thought it was a great game. Both teams played excellent, but what particularly impressed me was the Sens clogging up the lanes and not allowing clean cross ice backdoor stuff through the crease.

Emery played better, but he also got a lot more help from the other 5 guys on the ice.

I guess this shows that there is a reason these are 7 game series', huh?

 
At 9:51 AM, Anonymous Rob Wiebe said...

I was so impressed with Emery last night. He made some fabulous saves, 2 especially, late in the 3rd period that kept Ottawa in it.

Another thing that impresses me about Emery is his (apparent) ability to block out the media. The talk about Hasek coming back in game 4 must have been distracting and now I read this morning in the Citizen that Hasek might be back on Saturday. Can't the media shut up on this? Emery's our man in nets. I can't imagine that Murray would put Hasek in, even if he were suddenly healed and feeling 100%.

And what about Afinogenov? Jesus Murphy. I wish he was wearing a Sens' jersey.

 
At 2:10 PM, Blogger LC Scotty said...

"And what about Afinogenov? Jesus Murphy. I wish he was wearing a Sens' jersey."

We wish he could finish like he skates.

 
At 2:35 PM, Anonymous Dennis Prouse said...

The pressure is still on the Sens, and I'm sure Buffalo will be bringing their "A" game tomorrow to finish this thing off. Expect a grind of a game just like last night's.

Pull off a win tomorrow, however, and this series gets REALLY interesting. Buffalo would start feeling the pressure immensely, and momentum would be back on our side. If there was ever a year a team might pull off the back-from-0-3 special, it will be in this whacky post-lockout season...

 

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