Friday, May 05, 2006

A team we know

If you would have told me, before the season, that it would be the Buffalo Sabres who the Ottawa Senators would be fighting for the division title down the stretch drive, I would've had a hearty laugh. In fact, proving how little I thought of the Sabres, I picked them to finish fifth in the division.

Their journey this season has been very fun to watch from a far, even as a fan of one of their rivals. To see how far they've come from the team that got humiliated 10-4 on national TV, and beat by multiple goals with ease in previous meetings, should give hope to a fan of any down and out franchise. With a lot of hard work, good management, excellent coaching, and the right breaks, your team could be the next Buffalo Sabres.

While Ottawa's primary rivals have become Toronto, Philadelphia, and Montreal (Philly for playoff reasons, Montreal for geographical ones, and Toronto for both), once upon a time, the Sabres were actually one of their chief foes. Ottawa's first playoff series in modern day history was against the Sabres in the infamous series that saw Dominik Hasek pull the chute and ultimately kickstarted the demise of Ted Nolan. It was a fantastic series. I remember the electricity in the city being off the charts. It was the good ol' days. When just a playoff birth was enough.

Buffalo, thanks to riding Hasek, won the Northeast division while Ottawa squeeked in, yet when Hasek went down and the relatively unproven Steve Shields was put in his place, Sens fans thought the odds had been tipped in our favor. The series ended up going to OT of game seven and was decided by a chinzy goal from Derek Plante. The slapshot from the blueline ripped through an old glove of Ron Tugnutt's. I'd be lying if I said I didn't wonder, for years, what if Tugnutt had a new trapper (watch the video of my nightmare here). It was heartbreaking, but back then, at the end of the day, to take them to game seven was satisfaction enough to Sens Nation. The sky looked to be the limit.

Fast forward two years. The 1999 playoffs. The roles were now reversed. The Senators had their best regular season in history, finishing with 103 points, third most in the NHL. The previous season, Ottawa as the 8th seed upset #1 seed New Jersey in the first round. That victory, combined with the excellent regular season, had expectations much higher. Too high, we soon learned. This would be the first year of Ottawa's many playoff disasters. The Sabres swept Ottawa in four games, and though the series was closer than you'd think based on the 4-0 win, it turned the fortunes of the franchise around. Once the upstart underdogs, they were now labelled chokers, and haven't been able to shake that image since. Franchise player Alexei Yashin finished the series with no points, a trend that would continue throughout his career.

I remember going to game two of that series. The building was beyond loud for the entire game. They handed out these cheap little foam swords that glowed in the dark, and the excitement was so high we didn't even take notice of how incredibly corny it was. Ottawa lost the first game but most felt they could bounce back. When the Sabres won in OT, we shuffled out of the Corel Centre deflated. It was an awful feeling.

This time, we have a unique scenario. Ottawa is the favorite, sure, but there is no wide gap in the standings. One disappointment is no Dominik Hasek, if only because I would love to have him drive Sabres fans nuts the way he did us for so.

These teams are evenly matched and it all has the makings of an exciting series.

FORWARDS:
Both the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres had tremendous seasons from their forward cores. Each team had six 20-goal scorers so clearly neither can be accused of being a one-line team. In fact, what makes the Sabres so dangerous in my eyes is that they can roll four lines that can and will bury any chances they get. Shit, their fourth line has a 25-goal scorer in Thomas Vanek. As it stands, Ottawa will not load up their own forward lines by putting Daniel Alfredsson back with Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley, with Bryan Murray's logic being that it's better to spread out the scoring over three lines by having Alfredsson on the "third line" with Patrick Eaves and Bryan Smolinski. As a Sens fan, I believe they need to reunite the Big Line, but with Buffalo rolling all four lines, I suspect Murray will not bite. Alfie will have to find his offensive game though, which means Smolinski will have to play at a level he hasn't with any consistency this season. Buffalo's top line of Johan Hecht-Daniel Briere-J.P. Dumont will see a lot of Zdeno Chara and none of the three are physical forwards. If Chara takes that game to them, can they respond?
EDGE: Slight slight slight to Ottawa

DEFENCE:
After the first round, I no longer think the desparity between these two teams D is as large as I previously did. I perceived their top six to be average by NHL playoff standards, but the Philadelphia series saw guys like Brian Campbell, Toni Lydman, and Henrik Tallinder have monster series. Jay McKee has proven himself all season long, so there's no second guessing him. Teppo Numminen is about as consistent as it gets, and Dmitri Kalinin is a solid 5th or 6th defenceman. Having said all this, I still believe Ottawa's defence is superior. Buffalo doesn't have anyone who can match what Chara brings to the table nor do they have a puck moving defenceman the quality of Wade Redden. Chris Phillips' health remains a question mark, as it's still not known if he'll play tonight, but he brings a dimension to the line-up that can't be overlooked. He and Chara routinely shut down the opposition's top line. In this instance, I imagine they'll be assigned the Briere line, even though Buffalo's other lines are dangerous. A key in this series will be how Andrej Meszaros and Anton Volchenkov bounce back from mediocre first rounds. Each will have to elevate their game if Ottawa is to win this series.
EDGE: Ottawa

GOALTENDING:
There isn't much to go on to put one over the other. Neither Ray Emery nor Ryan Miller were forced to be great in the first round, but each guy was occasionally called upon to make a big save and each time they answered the call. Miller spent more of the season as "the guy", and thus, has more experience being a starter in the NHL than Emery does. Miller is also thought to be the better of the two by most hockey pundits. Emery has proven himself to be an incredibly streaky goalie and right now that streak is a hot one. Can he maintain it?
EDGE: Slight to Buffalo

SPECIAL TEAMS:
This proved to be one of the deciding factors in the series win over Tampa Bay for Ottawa. The Sens' powerplay, which went 33% in the series, destroyed the Lightning while their PK shut down whatever powerplays Tampa had. On the other end, Buffalo's powerplay was never quite able to find it's groove in their first round series. Luckily for them, it didn't have to be, but to beat Ottawa, the Sabres will need to sharpen their play with the man advantage. Based on the fact that their powerplay was ranked 3rd in the regular season, only one spot behind the Senators, they're clearly capable.
EDGE: Ottawa

TOUGHNESS:
The Tampa-Ottawa series got a lot more rugged than anyone could've expected going in, and Ottawa more than held their own. As well, Philadelphia tried to throw the Sabres off their game by emphasizing physicality. It was not successful, as Buffalo battled through it. So both teams are tougher than they probably appear to be on paper. Martin Havlat was rightfully accused of folding under physical pressure in previous playoffs, yet that no longer looks to be the case. Jason Spezza showed a lot of chippiness in the first round. We know what Chara does. For Buffalo, the Daniel Brieres and Chris Drurys are not the posterboys for toughness, but each can hold their own, and that pretty well applies for the entire line-up with the possible exception of Maxim Afinogenov. I don't see this series getting too dirty or chippy but being that it's the second round of the playoffs, expect a certain level of battling.
EDGE: Even

PLAYOFF EXPERIENCE:
Unquestionably the Achillie's heel in the first round for each team, it didn't end up being much of a factor. Tampa and all their Cup rings weren't able to beat the much greener Sens and the Sabres, who have even less experience in the postseason than the Senators, knocked off the Flyers who went to the final four the year before. So are we putting too much emphasis on experience? It clearly doesn't trump talent, but if two teams are pretty equally matched, can it be the deciding factor? Buffalo has only one player with a Cup ring, Chris Drury, to Ottawa's zero. The Sabres only had four forwards with at least 20 games of playoff experience, but their defence has some playoff proven players. Ottawa has the edge, but will it even matter?
EDGE: Ottawa

COACHING:
Lindy Ruff's a finanlist for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the season and has done a remarkable job this season. Bryan Murray doesn't get credit for what he's accomplished in Ottawa this year because the perception is that anyone could have success with this team. Ruff took an equally average Sabres team to the finals in 99 and is thought to be among the best coaches in the league. Each guy believes in matchups, but Ruff appears to focus on matching up forward lines while Murray is about defence vs. forwards. We'll find out which is the correct approach soon enough.
EDGE: Even

PREDICTION:
With little to go on when picking a winner, I believe it will come down to Ottawa's ability to shut down Buffalo's scoring. Not completely, because with that many weapons it's foolish to think you can prevent them from scoring all together, but if they can neutralize Briere's line and force the others to take on a bigger role, then I believe the Sabres' chances of winning diminish. Buffalo's powerplay must improve from the first round for them to compete, and each goalie will have to shine, because tons of shots are coming their way.
Ottawa in 6

1 Comments:

At 7:51 PM, Anonymous KevinP said...

Very accurate Chris.

 

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