Saturday, April 29, 2006

Ottawa 3 Tampa Bay 2

Shows what I know.

I figured, based on how easily they folded in game four, that the Tampa Bay Lightning had no life left in them and would roll over in game give. That was not the case.

They proved to still have some fight in them and made the series clincher difficult for the Sens. There can be little disputing that the Sens were the better team but Tampa held their own and generated enough chances right up to the end that the hearts of Sens Nation were beating at a rapid pace. I imagine more than a few of you needed some liquid courage to get through those last five minutes.

I'm going to quickly go over tonight's game because I plan to wrap up the entire series from the Sens perspective Monday.

THE GOOD:

Jason Spezza & Dany Heatley. Very good transition game from these two. It seemed as if every time they were on the ice a rush occured and a scoring chance of some kind was generated. They were causing havoc in the Lightning zone for the entire game.

Antoine Vermette. Lined up with Heatley and Spezza, Vermette had another sensational game but made his biggest impact on the penalty kill. It says a lot about what the confidence Bryan Murray has in Vermette that the young man was on the ice for the 6-on-4 at the end of the game. Vermette lost his stick early in the shift but still blocked a shot.

Wade Redden. It's been a magical series for Redden and this may have been his best game. Another excellent tape-to-tape pass from him resulted in a goal and he was tremendous with Andrej Meszaros in his own end. With no Chris Phillips, Redden took on more minutes and answered the challenged very well. The moment in which he came out to an ovation after being named the game's number one star and pointed to the skies was incredibly moving and sums up his series very well.

Martin Havlat. Without question the best Sen all series, he was explosive every time he touched the puck. Led all Sens in shots on goal and made every one of them count.

Faceoffs. Ottawa was very good on the draws. Bryan Smolinski in particular, winning 12 of the 14 he took

THE BAD:

Anton Volchenkov.
The A-Train continues to disappoint. Very discouraging play.

THE OPPOSITION:

The defending Cup champs had been let down by inconsistent goaltending all season long. I suppose there's some irony in the reality that by the time they got great goaltending in this series, they were in such a hole it was too late.

The only reason this win wasn't by three or four goals was Sean Burke. That isn't meant to be a slight against the Bolts, because they came to play and left it all on the ice, but put John Grahame between the pipes and the score isn't even close. Burke can't be faulted on any of the goals and made enough spectaculat saves in the third period to keep them in the game.

One of the things I noted about game four was how easily they folded their tent when the Sens got up a goal, essentially making the game over at the second intermission. When Havlat scored to make it 3-1 I figured this would happen once again, but Burke refused to fall into the same old trapping and within a two minute span made a handful of huge saves that looked to energize the bench and make them realize it wasn't over. Sure enough, Brad Richards, who's been their best skater this series, scored not soon after to cut the gap in half once again.

What let the Bolts down on the night wasn't shabby netminding but instead an impotent powerplay, which has been a reoccuring theme for them all season. They had the 21st ranked PP in the NHL despite sporting some gunners and that trend carried over into the postseason and they had the worst powerplay of any team this playoffs. They went 0 for 4 on the night and their troubles with the man advantage could be best summed up by the last minute of the game when they had a 6-on-4 (Burke was pulled) and could not get a good scoring chance out of it, even with their season hanging in the balance.

In the postgame press conference, which sadly was without any profanity, John Tortorella basically admitted that he didn't have the horses to work with, pointing the finger in a not so subtle way at GM Jay Feester, though he did say he and Jay made the decision to go with Grahame and Burke at the start of the season.

After a wonderful season in '03-'04 that saw them take home Stanley, being ousted in the first round in five games has to be a colossal disappointment to the franchise and its fans, and can't be spun as anything but a step backward after years of visible steps in the right direction. Where they go from here will be interesting. Signing Brad Richards has to be a top priority, but moreso than securing their goaltending? They also need help on the blueline. Pavel Kubina, who was awesome in the first game but vanished shortly thereafter, is a UFA and will probably get some good offers. They might be wise to let him go and invest that money in a few lower profile guys who can still do the job.

The team also has to address the fact that a few guys were passengers in this series. Where was Fredrik Modin and his 30 goals? I know Vaclav Prospal was playing hurt, but his disappearing act reminded Sens fans of his time here. Ruslan Fedotenko showed a lot of fight, but also took too many bad penalties and didn't produce offensively.

The team needed its secondary scorers to ease the load of the Big Three, and they weren't up to the job. So I have to think Feester and Co. will look at bringing in some new faces who can.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Put a fork in 'em

Apologies for not updating after last night's game, but Blogger was giving me technical problems all night.

And really, what needed to be said?

Last night was a shining example of the frailty that is the Tampa Bay Lightning. The truth is, for the first 30 or so minutes, they outplayed Ottawa. Not by a wide margin, but they were the better team. They had more jump in their step, their passes were connecting, and they were far superior in their own zone with the puck (a major problem for the Sens in the first half as they couldn't seem to clear the puck even if their lives depended on it).

Unfortunately for the Lightning, Ray Emery was once again on his A-game, making that whole "Emery is their weakest link" argument from John Tortorella look pretty stupid. If this is the team's weak link, then Ottawa might as well start planning their Cup parade because Emery has not disappointed yet. If I was to list players who I'm concerned about as we go forward, Emery wouldn't be anywhere near the top.

Tampa had the game in command with a 2-1 lead, and yet a chinzy goal by Chris Phillips deflated them. Suddenly, that confidence they had been playing with for 30 minutes began to wain. By the time Ottawa scored two more that period, the air was out of the tires. HNIC showed a shot of the bench just before the second intermission and they collectively looked like their dogs had died. Despite being the better team for the majority of the game, they were down two goals and knew there was no coming back.

A lot has been made of Tortorella's rant after the game and I really don't know what to make of it. I used to think Tortorella's spiels were gamesmanship, an attempt to get inside the head of whoever the subject was, but I'm beginning to believe the guy is just an asshole with an inflated sense of self.

Yeah, honesty is nice, and as fans it's fun to not get the same stock post-game comments, but I feel as though Tortorella went too far.

John Grahame is not a starting goalie in the NHL. This much has been known for some time by just about anyone with half a brain. Yet the Lightning convinced themselves he was up to the job.

If Tortorella wants to blame anyone, blame Tampa Bay GM Jay Feester because he's the tool who didn't bring in a more qualified goalie. Their Plan B, Sean Burke, looked old and past his prime two years ago. I wouldn't think it would take a rocket scientist to realize that a 38-year-old goalie who hadn't played a game in over a year was not a good solution, yet that's the road they took.

Grahame is in over his head, and try as he might, he just doesn't have what it takes to fill the job. Tortorella can rant and rave all he wants, but it won't cause Grahame to suddenly wake up the next morning with more skill. You either have it or you don't and he does not.

What long term implications will what Tortella said have? Grahame is a UFA at the end of the season it's probably a safe assumption he won't be back, nor would he want to be. But what about those who remain?

The handful of interviews I've seen with Tampa players about what was said seem to indicate they back Grahame not Tortorella. Brad Richards made a comment to TSN about the separation between the coaching staff and the players.

Is every Tampa Bay Lightning now going to be thinking "if I screw up, this guy will rip me a new one?"? I know I would, even if it was just a little bit. Having a taskmaster who cracks the whip has proven to be successful (see Scotty Bowman) but John Tortorella is not Scotty Bowman. He's not even Mike Keenan. He's a guy who won a Cup with a loaded team that had everything go right for them that season.

Tortorella must feel as though his job security is not an issue if he feels comfortable potentially alienating his locker room.

What was also exposed last night was how important Tampa's lack of forward depth was. The Bolts had been leaning on their Big Three as well as their three supporters all series long, and they often rised to the occasion. In game four, Ottawa rolled four lines and skated them into the ice. They were dead tired.

The injury to Chris Phillips don't sound as if it's super serious. Bob McKenzie was on OTR a few minutes ago and said he had heard that if the game was very important, Phillips could've and would've kept playing, but since by that point the Sens had a strangehold, they thought it wise to sit him.

If he's not 100%, no point in risking him reinjuring it by playing him in game 5. It's better to play it safe short term than risk long term problems. Phillips has not looked particularly strong all series, which is uncharacterist of the Big Rig as historically he's been their best postseason blueliner. I suspect it has to do with the bad knee, and so might as well play Christoph Schubert in his place and let him get healthy, or at least healthier. If this team is going to make a long run this spring they'll need Philly back in top form.

And yes, that pretty much means I'm approaching tomorrow night's contest as if it's a formality. Nothing should ever be taken for granted in the NHL, but I truly see no reason why the Sens will lose tomorrow night. The way Tampa looked in that third period, it seems as if they too have accepted their fate. I wouldn't be surprised to learn a few of them started booking their vacations late last night, shining up the nine irons and making sure the speedos still fit right.

Can Tampa Bay win? Sure, I guess. They have enough weapons and we've seen what happens when said weapons bring it. I just don't see the Sens playing as poorly as they did in game 2. They learned their lesson.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Ron Francis has a blog?

Apparently so.

How weird yet immensely cool.

More Don Cherry idiocy on display last night

I really should know better than to watch Coach's Corner these days. With the Leafs out of it, the CBC are quite butthurt, and are taking it out on the rest of us. The most sad is, of course, Mr. Tronna himself Don Cherry.

Now, asserting that the CBC and specifically Cherry are Leaf homers is nothing new. It's been known by anyone who's caught even an episode of HNIC at any time over the last 10 years. I'm over complaining about how unfair it is for a broacaster subsidized by our taxes dollars to be so regionalized because no amount of bitching about it will change anything. HNIC is about making money, and their best way to do that is to attach themselves in every way possibles to the Buds.

But now that Toronto is out of it, they don't know what to do. The talking heads routinely find ways to bring up the Leafs somehow to keep Leaf Nation interested, but I'm sure they wish it was Mats Sundin on the ice instead of Daniel Alfredsson or Saku Koivu.

Last night, on CC, Cherry took Chris Neil to task for his turtling. No surprise there. He said Neil "sold his soul for a win". Predictable response. No use in pointing out that Cherry's pal Tie Domi turtled as well back when Jim McKenzie of the Devils tried to fight Domi in the first game of the regular season after the infamous Scott Niedermayer incident that brouht out Tie's crocodile tears.

What did irk me, and again, I realize I brought it on myself by even indulging in Cherry at time when he's so irritable, was his attack on Zdeno Chara. After Cherry praised Vincent Lecavalier and called him the best player in the world (that seems like a stretch but there's no disputing he's quite good and I think we'd all like him on our team), he basically accused Chara of being a goon.

First, he said Chara was at fault for the fight. As I remember it, Chara pulled Lecavalier from the scrum and was simply containing him when Vinny threw a misguided punch. Up to that point, it didn't seem as if Chara had any interested in fighting, nor should he in the wake of that serious hand injury that took far too long to heal.

Cherry rationalized that even though Chara didn't throw the first blow, he initiated it by looking at Lecavalier. Yes, that's right, looking at him. Once he did that, Lecavalier had to defend himself! He was being looked at!

Then Cherry said Chara was being a show off by holding his fist over a prone and, frankly, lucky Lecavalier. What bullshit. Even the Tampa fans I've seen said that they respected Chara for showing great restraint. If he wanted to hurt Lecavalier he could have, easily. He didn't. And what does that get him? A public ripping at the hands of a guy who is, unfortunately, one of the more respected media people in the country.

The further the Sens go into these playoffs, the more it'll bug Cherry I'm sure. He'll find ways to say this player is dirty and that one is soft. He'll call our captain Daniel Anderson, because apparently Canada's supposed number one authority on the game can't even remember the name of one of the best players in the league and the captain of the top team in the nation.

I envy you Calgary and Edmonton fans who don't have to put up with this retard. As goofy as he might be sometimes, I'd take Kelly Hrudey over this borderline racist, downright idiotic hockey icon any day of the week.

Don't worry Don, I'm sure the Leafs will be back in sometime soon. Until then, take a Midol and leave the broadcasting to someone who has something of significance to say.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Chris Neil: zero or hero?

Driving home tonight, I listened to a bit of local sports talk radio on The Team 1200 and to my surprise, the hot topic wasn’t the Sens big win last night to take a 2-1 series lead but instead what Chris Neil did in the game.

For those of you who missed it, I’ll try and recap as best I can.

First, Neil went after Ruslan Fedotenko when the Lightning forward was digging at a puck in the pads of Ray Emery after the play had been whistled dead. Neil threw some punches and, frankly, was lucky he didn’t get a major. As he was being escorted off the ice (there was less than two minutes remaining in the period so they temporarily sent him to the dressing room), Neil mouthed “me and you” to Sean Burke who had replaced John Grahame in net. Some interpreted this as him saying he wanted to fight Burke (on the TV broadcast it was mentioned that Burke and Neil might have history since both were a part of the big brawl between the Sens and Flyers last year that set a new NHL penalty minute record, but Burke stayed out of it and only appeared in the game when Robert Esche was tossed for fighting with Patrick Lalime, so that theory doesn’t seem accurate to me), but I took as it Neil saying that if the Bolts were going to run his goalie, he would do the same. It was open to interpretation.

Highlights were shown of Neil and Burke jawing back and fourth in between plays when both were at the bench. There seemed to be something going on between them.

After all this, Neil resumed playing a physical game, finishing his checks (clean ones) and playing the role that gets him in the line-up. I suppose this, coupled with Neil’s attack on Fedotenko, his “challenge” of Burke, and the lopsided score, enraged the Lightning. Their toughguy, Chris Dingman was lined up with Neil at the faceoff and before Neil could drop his gloves Dingman began pounding him. Neil turtled and didn’t fight back. Dingman was given a misconduct and put Ottawa on the powerplay for seven minutes.

There seems to be a dispute, even amongst Sens fans, about whether or not this was the right thing for Neil to do, and frankly, I can’t understand it for a second.

Chris Neil absolutely did the correct thing, and instead of being called a coward by fans on local radio (given how many fights he’s been in I find it hard to believe anyone can think that of him), Neil should be commended for excellent gamesmanship.

Let’s remember where this game was at the time of the Dingman incident. Ottawa was up three goals, 5-2, but Tampa, early in that third period, was pressing. Because of the score they were forced to pinch even more and were getting quite a bit of scoring chances. The Senators had stopped skating and the tight coverage in their own zone that was a big part of why they were able to build such a lead had disappeared. Even up three goals the Sens looked to be in some trouble, and having seen two teams come back from three goal holes the night before, I was worried Tampa would come back. Such a thing could and likely would be a series turning point.

Chris Dingman’s penalty ended all that. He squashed his team’s momentum. Ottawa went back on the powerplay, scored another goal, and from that point on, the game was over, even with two more goals scored by each team afterwards. That Dany Heatley PP goal was the backbreaker.

Ottawa has historically been labeled a soft team, often in reference their playoff loses to Toronto. I’ve never bought this. The Sens may not be the Flyers of the 70’s but they’re not a delicate club either. They have some team toughness and more than a few guys who can and will hold their own physically. If we were to rank the toughest teams in the NHL, I’d say they were a middle of the pack club.

Nonetheless, so many Sens fans have bought into this “the Sens are weak!” bullshit that they’ve let it cloud their otherwise good judgment. That’s the only explanation I have for why they would take Chris Neil to task for what he did.

It seems as if they’re more interested in Ottawa proving they’re tough than they are seeing Ottawa win. Let me ask you this, and this goes for fans of any team: would you rather your team be a perennial loser but have the reputation of being a hard, tough group or be a winner and have some people question their toughness?

For me, it’s a no brainer. Call them pussies all day long if you want, as long as they win, I don’t give a shit.

Sometimes Canadian hockey fans are so wrapped up in toughness they forget there are other things involved in the game. You know, like scoring goals? A big hit frequently gets a bigger reaction than a goal. And if a player on the home team pummels someone in a brawl? Forget it. The ovation is massive. Last time I checked winning fights doesn’t mean shit on the scoreboard or in the standings.

What Chris Neil did was shift the energy of the game back in Ottawa’s favor. It was obvious after Dingman was thrown out that many Lightning players were more interested in running around trying to get even with Neil than they were with scoring a goal and making the final score less insulting to them. Neil didn’t mind this one bit, and when a few of them took a run at him and got the worst of it, he yelled a cheer right in front of their bench.

He took them off their game, and I don’t expect it to end with that contest. I imagine a few of them will try and take some runs at him again tomorrow night, and if he can lure them into a penalty in the process, Neil will probably be all for it, because Ottawa can and will bury the Tampa Bay Lightning if given those opportunities.

Is this all poor hockey etiquette? Who can say. But as Tim Taylor said when he picked up the game one puck and threw it in the garbage before the Sens could retrieve it for Ray Emery to commemorate his first playoff win, this is the playoffs. All that stuff is out the window. It’s Ws that matter now.

Ottawa 8 Tampa Bay 4

It was said that Monday night’s game, the third of this series, would be a message game for the Senators. Their character was once again put into question after the loss two nights earlier, some might say justifiably so, and as a result, they had to come back in a big way to silence those critics. I think it’s safe to say they did so. It was far from a perfect game for Ottawa, but in comparison to the effort we saw Sunday night, this was a big step forward.

THE GOOD:

Ray Emery. You might look at the score, see four goals against, and assume Emery had a subpar game, but that was not the case. Emery was very good and when called upon to be, sensational. It’s hard to fault him on any of the goalies, with the only one I’d say having any chance of being saved the Paul Ranger goal from inside the blueline. Emery was the best Ottawa penalty killer with his big saves.

Wade Redden.Those of you who questioned this man’s commitment to his teammates and the organization ought to feel pretty stupid. Redden had a monster game, scoring a goal while assisting on another. His outlet pass ability was on display on Martin Havlat’s second goal, as he backhanded the puck half way down the ice, tape-to-tape, to an already speeding “Mach 9”. If there’s another defenceman in the NHL who can make that play, I don’t know who it is. This was what was missing in Sunday night's loss. When the other defenceman tried to do Redden's job and pass the puck across the lines or carry it into the neutral zone, disaster occured. Redden may not be the bonecrushing d-man we all love to have on our team come playoff time but what he brings to the table is equally important to success. Redden’s still got to be reeling from the death of his mother but showed what kind of character he has both as a man and a hockey player on Monday night.

The return of Big Mean Zdeno Chara. Chara had been criticized by many, including Bryan Murray, for his lack of intensity and nastiness in the first two games. Perhaps he was afraid of taking a bad penalty, but for whatever reason, Chara played quite timid in this series, and for him to be effective, that just won’t work. We saw more of the Zdeno Chara we’ve come to know and love last night, as he was initiating contact with regularity and engaging in after whistle scrums often. He did show a bit of restraint and humanity on Vincent Lecavalier, who’s lucky he didn’t catch Chara on a bad day or he’d probably be missing some teeth and would be getting asked to recite the alphabet by a doctor checking his mental state. I’m sure a lot of you were like me when you saw Chara begin to throw punches: I was scared. We saw the worst case scenario when he dropped ‘em with Eric Cairns, and the last thing this team can afford to withstand is the loss of Chara because of a dumb decision to fight. But the replays showed Lecavalier threw the first punch, at a time when it looked like all Chara wanted to do was hold him back, and so it’s hard to blame Z for losing his cool.

The fight in Daniel Alfredsson. Another Sens who’s been racked over the coals for his mediocre peformance thus far has been the captain, and again, it hasn’t been without reason. Alfie simply hadn’t been the player the Senators need him to be. He promised a different game would emerge, and he did not disappoint. That extra gear was back in his skating and he was winning battles along the boards that he showed no interest in even engaging in for the first two games. Alfredsson was also big on the PK, especially when Chris Kelly left the game.

Martin Havlat and his big goals. How did we ever live without this guy? His ability to score in key moments is so huge.

Chris Neil, superpest. I imagine there is a dart board with Chris Neil’s face on it in the Lightning locker room. Neil took on a new role last night, channeling the ghosts of Claude Lemieux and Ken Linesman. He drove the Tampa goalies nuts and was responsible for luring Chris Dingman into a dumb penalty that basically squashed the momentum the Bolts were building.

The brewing bad blood. Did this series ever get vicious quickly. It’s strange because of all the Eastern Conference matchups this would be the one you’d think would least develop that way, and yet game four will have a whole lotta hate going on. A near blowout does that I suppose.

THE BAD:

The officiating. The referees did an excellent job of establishing the standard for which this series will be called in the first two games. I didn’t necessarily agree with all the calls, but at least they were consistent and went both ways. That was out the window here. I don’t know if the refs were swayed by the surprisingly live crowd, but there seemed to be different rules for the Ottawa Senators than the ones that applied to the defending Cup champs. Don’t get me wrong. Most of what Ottawa got whistled for were legitimate (a few were questionable). However, Tampa was getting away with near homicide on the ice most of the game. Patrick Eaves was mauled by the Lightning bench and Ray Emery was run with regularity. It’s no wonder the game degenerated into violence. The Sens figured, I assume, that if the refs weren’t going to do anything about it, they would. Whatever blood was spilt was on the hands of Kerry Fraser and Eric Furlatt. When a team takes 11 penalties you’d usually be right in calling them horribly undisciplined but I can’t fault the team.

Taking their foot off the gas pedal. Ottawa once again fell into a bad habit that’s been present all year: they didn’t finish the job on their own. Once the Sens got up 7-2 they stopped skating, put the forecheck away, and became lazy in their defensive coverage. As a result, Tampa was able to get back into the game sorta kinda. I can understand not taking the same risks you were when the game was scoreless, because the situation has changed, but a team cannot afford to assume it’s in the bag and start slacking. We saw Monday night what happens. Two teams came back from what seemed like insurmountable deficits to force OT.

Snake bitten Dany Heatley. He did finally get a goal, but by that point the game was out of hand. Heatley had at least half a dozen prime scoring chances and flubbed every one. I guess it was just one of those nights, because any other game would probably see him bury each and every one of those.

THE OPPOSITION:

A point was made by someone who I’d love to credit for their insight if I could remember their identity: Sunday night’s win by the Lightning saw them play a near perfect game, while Ottawa played a very pedestrian, and yet the Bolts only won by a goal. It’s doubtful Tampa could maintain this high level of play all series since it was hardly consistently ushered out in the regular season, and the odds of Ottawa playing that badly for the rest of the series were slim to none.

So the Chicken Littles probably needed a reality check, and I think that’s what this was. Tampa fell back to Earth while Ottawa played only 75% of how well they can and still handed them their asses.

Vincent Lecavalier was back in his shell, Martin St. Louis, try as he did, was neutralized very well, and Brad Richards wasn’t much of a factor. These three’s dominant play in game two was one of the main reasons the series came to Tampa tied. Some of their secondary players had decent games (Ruslan Fedotenko impressed me a lot), but in order for them to win, those guys need to be great, and they weren’t.

A interesting situation has developed with their goaltending. It wouldn’t be fair to blame John Grahame for the loss because most of those goals couldn’t be classified as stoppable, but he also didn’t win the game for them. However, I foresee Grahame becoming the scapegoat via John Tortorella simply based on their previous confrontations. If they do put Sean Burke in for game four, it’s doubtful Grahame comes back into the series at any point.

Before the series, Tortorella said that the pressure was on the Sens, not the Lightning, because they have all the lofty expectations. I don’t buy that for a minute. You want to tell me the fans of the Lightning, coming off a Cup win and having broken the franchise’s attendance records this year, don’t expect this team to prosper, average regular season or not? I believe the boos that rained down on the team as they were being scored upon answered that for me. The Lightning coach can spin this series however he wants and attempt all kind of head games, but something tells me if the Bolts lose the series in this fashion it won't go over well.

Monday, April 24, 2006

"He scores!!!! Or did he?"

What a wacky night of hockey.

Top line shake-up

Today's practice saw a new number one line thrown together: Antoine Vermette-Jason Spezza-Dany Heatley.

I'd like to say I'm amazed at the stupidity of that, but I'm beginning to realize that's just how this team does things: the hard way.

Antoine Vermette's a good player and can be effective if used right. Hell, I'm all for him getting an increased role as he's been very good on the PK and whenever given time 5-on-5 has made things happen.

But he's not Daniel Alfredsson, who should absolutely be back with Heatley and Spezza for a full game. Not thrown together in the third period when the team needs goals, but all the time. They have a proven track record of dominance, and Heatley and Spezza have their best games with the captain on the right wing. So why the hell aren't they going back to it?

At this rate, I wouldn't be entirely shocked to see Alfredsson on the fourth line tomorrow night and have it rationalized by Murray as an attempt to "spread out scoring". Riiiiiiight.

The one upside of Vermette being on the top line is that, if nothing else, it should quiet the critics who maintain his diminished role is the result of the team's apparent hatred of French Canadians. Yes, that's why Denis Hamel isn't with the team. Because he has a French name.

Some roster notes

Wade Redden will be returning to the team after spending Sunday with his family in Saskatchewan mourning the death of his mother Pat. Redden back in the line-up means Christoph Schubert, who I didn't think was a factor one way or the other, sits again.

I hope Redden's prompt returns does two things:

1) Silences those who are still convinced this is all a big coverup by the organization to hide some embarassing drug addiction problem for Redden. If you still believe this, you're a retard.

2) Silences those who got on their high horses and yelled "REDDEN MUST RETURN!" as soon as the news that he would miss game 2 was announced. He's back. You won. But if the guy's game isn't up to where you demand it to be, it's probably because his head isn't fully in the game. Yes, he's paid millions of dollars and ideally he should be able to focus on nothing but hockey, but Wade Redden is still a human being. I know we sometimes forget that our athletes are such. So if Redden's play isn't up to his normal standard, he should be forgiven by those of you who were so stern in your demand that he come back. His committment to this organization and his teammates should never have been questioned in the first place, but I sure hope it won't be now.

Redden's return should stabilize a defence that was very mediocre Sunday night. His absence saw guys like Zdeno Chara, Anton Volchenkov, and Andrej Meszaros get increased minutes and all three dropped the ball. Redden's outlet pass skills and ability to carry the puck aren't possessed by any other Sens d-man to a comparable degree, so not having him in there left a gaping hole in their gameplan that the others could not fill. They just don't possess those talents.

Chris Kelly's status is up in the air with an "upper body injury" suffered on the (what I thought was a dirty) hit from Cory Sarich. If Kelly can't play, expect Tyler Arnason to get his first look in this year's playoffs. It probably also means Bryan Murray shuffles the lines, though it shouldn't take an injury for him to see that it's necessary.

In a non-Sens related bit, apparently Kevin Weekes is getting the start in game 2 of tonight's Devils-Rangers game, not rookie sensation Henrik Lundqvist. They must really be panicking in that room if they're already changing goalies. I would've thought Lundqvist did enough this year for them to stick with him through one bad game, but shows what I know.

Did I miss something?

Listening to The Team 1200 this morning (the local sports talk radio station for those of you out of town), you'd think the Sens were just swept by the Leafs, losing every game 6-0.

People, calm down.

The series is tied 1-1. It would be nice if Ottawa was heading to Florida up 2-0, sure, but they're not. This doesn't mean they are out of it however.

It does mean the Senators have to improve on a lot of things. They have to work harder as a team, their big guns have to be their best players (we saw last night what happens when Tampa Bay's are), the powerplay has to be more effective. These are all fixable problems.

Remove your head from the oven. It's going to be alright.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Tampa Bay 4 Ottawa 3

If Friday night’s contest was a story of two games, the first in which Tampa controlled the pace and the second that saw Ottawa blow it open, then this too had two distinct flows, however on this occasion it didn’t go in the Senators favor. The first 10 or so minutes were all Sens, as they were on the attack and looked to be on rout to a big win. At around the half way point of that first period, something changed. Tampa began working harder, and that would generally be the story of the game. The Lightning simply wanted it more, were winning the one-on-one battles, and as a result, got the W.

THE GOOD:

Martin Havlat’s penchant for big goals. I think we’ve established by now that Havlat is a gamebreaker. His goal to tie the game was huge and really switched the momentum back in Ottawa’s favor. Havlat was also responsible for Peter Schaefer’s goal to give the Sens a temporary 3-2 lead because the Bolts forwards all focused on “Mach 9”, leaving Schaefer basically all alone to score.

Daniel Alfredsson’s patience on the first goal. Alfredsson’s poise and composure was on display here. He carried the puck in the Tampa zone with only Daryl Sydor to beat, yet instead of trying some fancy dipsy doodle move to try and shake the veteran defenceman, Alfie waited for the cavalry to arrive, circled the zone, and set up a goal. A lot of the team’s younger forwards could learn something from this play. Instead of trying to force a play, give it time to develop.

The “fourth line”. Once again Ottawa’s most consistent forward group, enough good things cannot be said about this trio’s ability to make something happen. Every time they touched the ice they were a factor, getting involved in scrums and dictating the play.

Patrick Eaves. A lot heart and grit show by the rookie, as he was fighting for his life and winning battles along the boards. He was also the first guy to get at Martin St. Louis when he hit Anton Volchenkov late. Despite being 21 years old, Eaves plays like a veteran and even in defeat elevated his game.

THE BAD:

Not enough shots! Grahame was deep in his net all game once again and was giving the Sens a lot of net to look at, yet Ottawa didn’t take advantage of it by firing as much rubber as they should’ve. They finished with 24 shots on goal (only 2 in the third period) however they must’ve passed up that many decent shooting chances. Andrej Meszaros (who I thought had a much better game than his subpar first one) in particular passed up a number of good shooting opportunities, electing to pass instead. This is a guy with a cannon for a shot and now he has been infested by this fear of firing the puck. This was the case most often on the maddeningly frustrating powerplay but it happened all game long in every situation. Ottawa has often been accused of looking for the perfect play and sometimes trying to force passes when they have the man advantage and they did so tonight.

Neutral zone turnovers. Sloppy play was a common theme throughout the game from the Sens point of view, but this really irked me because most of the giveaways were just the result of poor efforts and braindead plays. I don’t think I even need to mention who led the Sens in giveaways because you should know by now.

Zdeno Chara. With Wade Redden back home, the Sens needed Big Z to step his game up and he did not. In fact, I would argue Chara hurt his team more than he helped on this night. Far too often, Chara was caught out of position after a pinch and the results were horrific. Ottawa must’ve given up eight or nine odd man rushes in the game and half of them had to have occurred when Chara fucked up. If not for Chris Phillips bailing him out nearly every time, Chara’s gaffs would’ve been highlighted even more. As well, Chara was stumbling around out there, falling down on Brad Richards’ goal and then again in the third, which forced him take a penalty from his ass. Not every game can be Norris Trophy worthy but Chara cannot play these kind of mediocre games, especially now that Redden isn’t in the line-up, if Ottawa is to win.

Anton Volchenkov. Another guy who was asked to take on a bigger part with the absence of Redden, as a backer of his all season long, I was thoroughly disappointed with the “A-Train”’s game. Like Chara, his fuckups resulted in disaster, as the two goals he was on the ice for were largely Volchenkov’s fault. The giveaway that led to Martin St. Louis’ first goal was just a boneheaded pass and on St. Louis’s second Anton lost his man who happened to be the goal scorer. All year I’ve championed Volchenkov and urged the coaching staff to give him more ice time and a more prominent role, and so to see him get that opportunity and piss it away was discouraging.

Chris Kelly’s finish. Again, I like Kelly. I feel the need to reiterate that because I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. He’s a useful player and in certain situations (penalty killing, key defensive faceoffs) he’s important to the team but he is simply not a top six forward. Why Bryan Murray keeps trying to play him as one is beyond me. Kelly just does not have the offensive skillset to hang with Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza and whatever good things he brings to the line from a defensive perspective are negated by Kelly’s inability produce offense the way a top line player has to. In the second period he had two golden opportunities to score at the side of the net, and on each he fumbled with the puck and didn’t even get a shot off. In a way, I felt bad for Kelly because he was working hard but on that line he’s in over his head as far as the expectations and what he’s capable of doing. I’ve seen some call the move to play Kelly on that top line a Jacques Martin-like decision, and I’m inclined to agree. I thought Murray was the coach with balls?

Ray Emery’s wandering ways. You can usually tell how confident and comfortable “Razor” is in nets based on how often he comes out of the goal to handle the puck, so I guess it’s a positive that he was so eager to do so, but he has to be smarter about picking his spots. There’s no question he’s an improvement over Senators goalies of the past in terms of his ability to move the puck, as we saw in game one when he got an assist, but that does not mean he should leave the net every time. Be selective.

The time it took to do faceoffs. What was going on here? On almost every draw, there was some delay or somebody was being thrown out. Drop the damn puck already. Very stupid.

THE OPPOSITION:

As I said above, the game can be explained by pointing to the Tampa’s superior effort and desire. A big part of that was the play of their Big Three, all of whom took their games to levels not seen since they were last in the playoffs and winning a Cup.

All three of their key forwards, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, and Vincent Lecavalier, had monster games. They were skating well and extremely in their puck pursuit. When these players play like this I’m not sure any team can beat the Lightning, as each of them on their own have the ability to take over a game. When all three do so it’s nightmarish for fans on the opposite end. Ottawa’s defenders made life much easier for them than they should have, but give a bunch of credit to these guys for elevating their play.

Also huge was Ottawa native Dan Boyle. Not only did the goal to tie the game 3-3 but he was ridiculously solid in his own end, closing the passing lanes and having an active stick. He played the kind of game the Bolts need him to, and then some.

John Grahame looked shaky on a few plays but overall did not hurt the club, and in a lot of ways, that in itself is an improvement over where this team’s goaltending was a month ago. He made a number of big timely saves and got aided by a Tampa Bay defence group who did an excellent job of not allowing second and third chances.

Redden out for tonight's game

Wade Redden will miss game two of the series tonight. His mother Pat lost her battle to brain cancer and he's flown back to Saskatchewan to be with the family. Christoph Schubert will take his place and has big shoes to fill.

Redden had a terrific game one and was the team's best blueliner, so his loss will hurt, but captain Alfie put it best:

"There are things that are more important than hockey. He's going through a tough time and our thoughts are with him."

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Quick thoughts around the league

- The primary storyline going into these playoffs was all of the goalies with little to no postseason experience being depended on. Some have answered the bell while a few remain question marks. Based solely on those first games, Sens fans have to feel better about Ray Emery, Lightning supporters must be slightly less concerned about John Grahame, Chris Mason made Predators loyalists forget about Tomas Vokoun for a little while, Habs enthusiasts should be more comfortable with Cristobol Huet and his alleged glass slipper, and Sabres devotees should be excited about Ryan Miller. Shit, even Robert Esche, who I’m not a fan of and thought to be the wrong choice of the two Flyers ‘tenders, stood his ground and played fantastic. I’m sure, just because they lost, some Flyers fans will stay on his case, and it’s not as if his game was perfect (those juicy rebounds were still far too prevelant).

Meanwhile, Martin Gerber looked terrible in nets, giving up more than a couple bad goals, and you have to wonder at least a little if Cam Ward will get the nod. I hope not, because Gerber has had a great season and deserves the chance to bounce back, but who knows what Peter Laviolette will do. Also, even in spite of the poor defensive play of the team in front of him, Henrik Lunqvist did not look sharp. I must admit, of all the goalies who are wet behind the ears, I figured Lundqvist was the one to be least concerned about. He has a ton of big game experience in various ventures and plays like a big game goalie. It looks as if the Rangers will need him to steal games for them to remain in the series, and after game one, I’m not sure he’s up to the task.

Speaking of goalies, even in defeat, did Dwayne Roloson give Oiler nation some confidence? He was the only reason that game went to OT and from what I saw of the game looked a whole lot more comfortable than he had any other time I’ve seen him since the trade.

And finally, what happened to Marty Turco? Again, team in front of him, not so great, but still, I thought he was going to take him game to another level this postseason, hence my pick of the Stars as the eventual Cup winners. He’s struggled in the past when it mattered most but I figured he was going to turn over a new leaf and all. Sure didn’t look like to me. Meanwhile, in the other end, Jose Theodore quietly had a strong game, and made Pierre Lacroix look like not such an idiot after all.

- I love OT hockey and all that, but I’m always afraid of getting up at the wrong time and missing the goal. It’s happened more often than I’d like to admit in the past, and as a result, I end up watching a whole bunch of awful commercials I’d tune out of otherwise.

- Carolina fans, don’t panic. I know it looks bad. Your team, despite being much more talented on paper and having a far superior regular season, was essentially blown out by the Habs, but it was one game. If they lost by five goals in a game where they played well, I’d say your terror was legitimate. But the ‘Canes played like shit. They allowed Montreal to play their game, which is slow and methodical, instead of forcing the Carolina Hurricanes game, one based on aggression and speed, on them. Carolina has too many veterans to play that poorly in back-to-back games so I’m sure game two will be prettier on that end. That series just might be closer than I thought.

- And so could that Oilers-Wings series. I’m still inclined to agree with A.O. that Edmonton’s chances are good, but if they do lose, it won’t be because they weren’t trying. Despite the perceived gap in talent between the two teams, Edmonton didn’t back down a bit and hung in there.

- The other Alberta series had the snoozer of all the game ones. I know why Daryl Sutter employs those tactics, but fuck do they ever make for boring hockey. Even with the drama of an OT, I was very uninterested in the whole thing. I’d like Calgary to go far, because I like the whole red mile and all the explicit websites that come with it and because I picked them to do so in October, but if that means I have to watch that kind of hockey for the next two months, I might just take being wrong for once and order one of those college girls gone bananas DVDs to replace the drunken Flames fans who became the apple of Canada’s eye in the spring of ’04.

- The city of Winnipeg should get a royalty check from every team that bites their White Out concept. By the end of the playoffs, they'd have enough to buy the Penguins and move 'em there.

- Eric Desjardins was playing like it was 1993 last night. This is a guy who I maybe didn’t dismiss entirely but certainly thought of as past his prime. I figured he was still a useful defenceman but a shadow of his former self, the guy who was able to be the best player on the ice a lot of the time. Playoffs are great for guys rediscovering their games and he sure did, blocking shots, making smart defensive plays, and a number of great passes. He and Jani Pitkanen could end up being the most important players on the Flyers for that series, because they have the foot speed to keep up with the blazing Buffalo skaters.

- Ron McLean and Don Cherry's sadness about the Leafs lack of inclusion in this year's playoffs is so evident. They always find a way to talk about the Buds even though they're not a part of the fun. I know, I know, the CBC's "Tronna" bias is hardly news, but damn, can we move on? There are four Canadian teams in the playoffs who deserve their full attention, but that didn't stop Cherry from ranting about Tie Domi. Apparently he's surprised Leafs fans don't want him back. He can't understand why. Here's a tip Grapes: the guy sucks! He's no longer effective. It's nice he does a lot of charity work in the GTA and he should be commended for it, but if I'm a Leafs fan (*shudder*), I'd be more than okay with Domi doing that fulltime and not taking up a roster spot and cap space that could be used in other areas.

- I know a lot of Philly fans will be upset with Brian Campbell’s hit on R.J. Umburger however it looked clean in every replay I saw. One thing I will say is that none of the replays give you the true impact of that hit. It has to be seen in real time. It was both awesome and worrisome. I understand it’s estimated Umburger will miss the remainder of the playoffs, and that would be a shame, but Flyers Fan, remember this: if that exact hit had been Denis Gauthier on whoever on the Sabres, you’d be championing it as a shift in the series. Philadelphia likes their hockey rough, but sometimes it seems as if that only goes one way.

- I’m sure much will be made about the abundance of penalties, and the old fossils/Tom Benjamins of the world will whine and complain ‘till they’re blue in the face about how it’s not hockey (as if those rugby games on ice we’d been watching for 10 years were), but I had no problem with the officiating. My beef this season has been that the so-called standard can be anything but, and the calls were not consistent, but for the most part, I felt as though they did a good job. If your team was on the losing end, you might feel different and I understand that, and maybe I just feel this way because my team scored two PP goals on route to their game one win, but I liked the officiating.

Ottawa 4 Tampa Bay 1

THE GOOD:

Ray Emery. A lot has been made about Emery’s lack of experience and his slump down the stretch, and understandably so. However, in there last night, he looked like a season veteran. He made all the saves he had to, and a few he probably shouldn’t have been asked to, and was the main reason the Sens won the game. While Grahame was shining in one end, Emery was holding his own, and seemed to be revealing in the showdown he was having. Positionally, Emery was sound all night, coming out and challenging shooters often. One game doesn’t make a career, but I suspect Sens Nation is more confident than they were 12 hours ago.

The “fourth line”. I remarked, after Tuesday’s win over the Rangers, that I was surprised with how well the Vaclav Varada-Antoine Vermette-Chris Neil line played because I didn’t have high expectations going in. I expected good things here, but once again, they went above and beyond what I projected they would do. Once again, whenever on the ice, the puck always seemed to be in the Tampa end, and they generated more scoring chances than an alleged fourth line is supposed to. Murray gave this trio a big vote of confidence as they were given key shifts in the third period, getting a regular shift throughout the frame and making the most of their opportunities. Antoine Vermette (who’s become the local “play this guy more!” dude) got a ton of time at even strength in comparison to how much he usually plays.

Martin Havlat. After missing not one but two golden scoring opportunities at the side of the net on the same powerplay, Havlat’s finish looked to be in question. I assumed it was still in Cleveland with that witchdoctor who kept denying Havlat clearance to play. But he proved me wrong with his goal to tie the game. There can no disputing however, what a vital role he has on this team. He created something positive almost everytime he touched the ice, and I figure in a couple games he’ll be even more dangerous. Paired up with Mike Fisher and Peter Schaefer, Havlat gives the team the big secondary scoring weapon they’ve been yearning for all season.

The penalty killing. Though Tampa’s powerplay, ranked 23rd, is not very potent on paper, when you have Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Vinny Prospal, you have enough weapons to be a treacherous team. Ottawa handed them chance after chance to make something happen but then did an excellent job of making life difficult for them once the Bolts got on the PP. Tampa put Richards on the point and it was a mess, as he wasn't equipped to handle the aggressive approach Sens' PKers take. Hence, Mike Fisher's shorthanded goal, and about four other shorthanded odd man rushes.

Wade Redden. The best Sens d-man on the night, he was the best powerplay player, doing a good job distributing the puck while also keeping the puck in the zone.

THE BAD:

Chris Kelly on the top line. I like Chris Kelly. I think he’s a valuable role player who, in the right function can be very useful. But the top line, with two of your most dangerous offensive weapons, is no place for a role player, however hardworking he may be. If Bryan Murray is that determined to spread out the scoring and not reunite the Big Line, at least give Spezza and Heatley someone who has a skillset a tad comparable to theirs. Kelly’s a grinder. He exists for the third and fourth line, and why Murray is insistent on jamming a square peg into a circle hole is beyond me. It’s no coincedence that, at even strength, neither Spezza nor Heatley were major factors. They need someone to jump start them, and when you have that someone floundering on another line, it doesn’t make much sense from where I sit to do nothing about it.

Daniel Alfredsson. I’ve said before that if this team is going to have the kind of success we all want, Alfie will need to be their best player, and he was not on the night. It didn’t appear to be because the effort wasn’t there, as questioning Alfredsson’s work ethic is akin to treason here in Ottawa, but he never quite found his game. He did some good things on special teams, especially moving the puck on the powerplay, but like Spezza and Heatley, 5-on-5, Daniel Alfredsson really wasn’t much of a issue, which is something Tampa had to be smiling about.

For the first two periods, the powerplay. If you read this blog, you know the PP has been a thorn in my side all season, as it never really performs when you want it to. Those first 40 minutes, when they pissed away four powerplay chances without generating much in the process except for missing the net a lot, I began to think they would never net a PP goal.

Bad penalties. The standard was established early in the game, and whether or not you liked what was being called, you can’t accuse the referees of being inconsistent (even though that seems to be what John Tortorella is doing). And so for the Sens to routinely take such illtimed and, frankly, thoughtless penalties was frustrating. Dany Heatley took two on his own. Hopefully the coaching staff shows the team some game tape of what was called and says “now that we know what’s being called, knock it off”. That is, assuming the standard remains what it is. What’s that, you don’t think it will? Me neither, but I’m trying to be an optimist.

THE OPPOSITION

Even though they came out on the losing end and are now down 1-0, Tampa Bay can’t be too upset with the night as a whole. I’m sure they’re disappointed with the collapse in the third, but they did enough good things in the first two periods that they should have some hope that they can win the series.

Their big question mark was between the pipes, and John Grahame did as much to silence that as is possible in a single game. He was sensational, making a number of big saves and keeping the Sens at bay. On his end, he basically told his teammates that they could afford to play a more open style, that same style of play that they utilized on the way to winning the Cup, without having to worry about Grahame giving up a bad goal. He can’t be faulted on any of the times the Sens lit the lamp. Martin Havlat’s goal was pure idiocy on the part of the Tampa defenders, who let a bonafided sniper out of their sights and then in alone around the net, Jason Spezza picked a corner, and the shorthanded tally from Mike Fisher was a result of poor defensive play by the Bolts.

The question then, I suppose, is whether or not he can keep this up for the entire series, because if he doesn’t, I’m not sure Tampa Bay can remain competitive. I’m not fully convinced that Grahame is up to the task, however, if I’m a Tampa fan, I’m more optimistic than I was a few days ago.

Pavel Kubina was someone I highlighted as a key player for Tampa, and I thought he was probably their best player. He was terrific on the penalty kill, was real good on the point on the PP, and played the physical game they need him to.

What was evident about this team, and what would worry me, is how fragile they are. Despite playing a great game for two periods, one goal from the Sens totally deflated them, changing the momentum and making the result a foregone conclusion. That may very well be the difference between this version of the Lightning and the ones who won the Cup. They don’t seem to have that confidence.

Friday, April 21, 2006

It's almost time

We're less than two hours away from the drop of the puck of the '05-'06 NHL playoffs, and the excitement is starting to hit me. We've gone without playoff hockey for far too long, and yet, the old phrase absence makes the heart grow fonder seems appropriate, as I'm more amped about this year's Stanley Cup playoffs than I've been in a long time, and not just for the reasons surrounding the Senators.

Driving around the city today doing errands, there is a lot of enthusiasm, very high expectations, and a tad bit of nervous energy. The x factor appears to be Ray Emery, and even though most of you responded positively when I asked if you were confident he could do the job, I sense that isn't the case with a lot of Sens fans.

I get that. I would prefer a healthy Dominik Hasek, but that doesn't look like it's going to happen, and the team has to make the best of the situation. Emery's proven himself to be more capable than many of his netminding peers throughout the league in spite of his inconsistency and I think the rest of the team is strong enough that they only need above average goaltending off the bat.

At some point, they'll need a goalie to steal some games, but by the time that time that stage is reached, Emery will have won a few playoff series, and thus, be oozing confidence. And as we've seen this season, when Emery's poise is at a high level, he's an incredibly goalie to beat.

John Muckler made a comparison today on local radio when asked about Emery. He mentioned that the 1990 Oilers team he coached to a Cup had a goalie with only four games of experience under his belt, and not only did he do the job, he won the Conn Smythe.

The odds are that some goalie will win his first Cup this year, and that he'll do so with very little postseason games to his name before the run. Why can't it be Ray Emery?

Enjoy the game(s).

A heads up part 2

Even though CBC hates Sens fans based on their announcer assignments, I was asked to be a part of a playoff roundtable they're having on CBC.ca. The first portion is up now. It will be going on through the playoffs, so keep checking back.

Sizing it up

FORWARDS:
One thing is known for sure: both of these teams can score goals. Ottawa finished 2nd
in the league in scoring, and though Tampa was further down the list at 16th, they have enough weapons up front that they can hang with the Sens. Beyond the big three of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Brad Richards, the Lightning have some real solid secondary tools in Fredrick Modin (31 goals), Vaclav Prospal (80 points), and Ruslan Fedotenko (26 goals). Getting Martin Havlat back will boost the Sens odds of being able to run and gun with the Lightning, as he was a 30 goal scorer in the old NHL, and as we’ve seen when he’s been in the line-up this year, the new rules suit his skillset quite well. What might give Ottawa a slight edge is the fact their scoring is better distributed. If we’re to believe the forward lines Bryan Murray went with Tuesday night and all week in practice are what we’ll see tonight, the Sens’ third line with have Havlat and two 20 goal scorers (Mike Fisher and Peter Schaefer, each coming off career years) while their fourth would have Antoine Vermette and his 21 goals with Chris Neil and his 16. I’m not sure Tampa’s third and fourth lines can produce that much offence unless players like Dimitry Afanasenkov step up.
EDGE: Even

DEFENCE:
This is where Ottawa separates itself from Tampa, and where I believe the series will be won. While one might be able to make the case they’re even up front, there is no comparison on the back-end. Ottawa’s top four of Zdeno Chara, Chris Phillips, Wade Redden, and Andrej Meszaros towers over Tampa’s Dan Boyle, Pavel Kubina, Daryl Sydor, and Corey Sarich in every area. In total, Ottawa’s top six D combined for 46 goals and 203 points compared to Tampa’s 26 goals and 130 points. Ottawa native Dan Boyle will have to have a monster series on Tampa’s blueline for the Bolts to have a shot, and Pavel Kubina, who was so sensational last season, is going to have to rediscover that game, because he’s struggled all season long. The offseason departures of Brad Lukowich and Jason Cullimore, though not considered significant at the time, look to have depleted what was a strong group of defencemen. Can the guys they have left shut down Ottawa’s top skaters the way I believe the Sens can to Tampa’s? I don’t think so.
EDGE: Ottawa

GOALTENDING
Though John Grahame has been given the nod by Tampa, don’t think that’s set in stone. If he struggles, I’m sure John Tortorella will not hesitate to put Sean Burke in there. However, regardless of which Bolts ‘tender is between the pipes, I think Ray Emery has the edge. As streaky as he’s been this season, he’s still head and shoulders above the abysmal goaltending that Lightning fans have had to deal with this season. He has been prone to bad goals when struggling, but again, that’s something that the Bolts have dealt with all year long, regardless of which guy was in nets. Don’t expect this series to be one where goaltending shines though. High scores will be at a premium, and it may come down to which of the two netminders lets in the least amount of poor goals. For the Sens, Emery simply winning a series, even in unspectacular fashion, will be a boost to his confidence.
EDGE: Ottawa

SPECIAL TEAMS:
A lot of pundits have made a point of stressing Ottawa’s advantage on the powerplay end compared to Tampa. Ottawa finished the season with the 4th ranked PP while the Lightning are all the way down at 23rd. There can be no disputing that the Sens have the better PP, but believe me, Ottawa’s powerplay is much better on paper than it is in execution. It has struggled horribly this season, and gone through dry spells that made me convinced they would never score another goal with the man advantage. Usually, they snap out of it, however, don’t let that 4th ranking fool you. And I have to believe Tampa’s PP is better than that 23rd ranking, just because they have so many talented offensive players. The penalty killing may be the real advantage and where the numbers are more indicative of the gap between the two teams. The Sens are also ranked 4th there, but it’s been far more consistent this season. Ottawa led the NHL in short handed goals, with three players in the top 10 short handed scorers. Throw in Havlat, who proved to be a formidable shorthanded threat in his limited action, and Ottawa’s special teams game is much stronger than Tampa’s.
EDGE: Ottawa

TOUGHNESS:
Neither team are considered to be among the NHL’s toughest teams. Tampa doesn’t have a lot of bruisers nor do they have many guys that can hang with Donald Brashear, but they showed immense team toughness during their Cup run, with even the skilled players displaying a lot of grit. Ottawa’s toughness, or lack there of, has been listed as a weakness for as long as I can remember, and though I never believed it was why they lost, the Sens toughness was not at the level fans would’ve liked. I think all those playoff defeats, as well as the 2003 Eastern Conference final appearance toughened a lot of the guys, but there are still enough question marks. The guys who depend on the game getting rough will be sitting this series out. Fortunately, I don’t imagine this series will be that kind of hockey.
EDGE: Tampa Bay

PLAYOFF EXPERIENCE:
Because of their Cup run in ’04, Tampa has a massive edge over the Senators here. Tampa has 13 guys with rings, while Ottawa, without Dominik Hasek, has zero. In fact, they only have one guy (Vaclav Varada) who's been to the finals. In short, Tampa has a team full of guys who know how to win, while Ottawa is still trying to reach that level. Many key Sens players (Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Andrej Meszaros, Antoine Vermette) have close to zero postseason experience, and though I believe they’re ready to be big playoff performers, until it happens its an unknown entity. The goaltending is also important here because neither Ray Emery nor John Grahame have a single playoff game in the NHL under thei collective belts. If Sean Burke plays, he gives the Lightning a goalie who, at least, has played in some.
EDGE: Tampa Bay

COACHING:
Tortorella has a ring, and Bryan Murray doesn’t, but based on what has gone on in Tampa this season, it almost seems like the Bolts coach has lost his team. He’s an incredibly passionate bench boss who demands a lot of his players, and has routinely expressed disappointment with their underachieving ways this season. I can’t imagine that has gone over well. Murray’s message is still fresh with the Sens, who had tuned out Jacques Martin long ago. Even with Tortorella’s edge due to his Cup ring, I think Murray’s playoff experience supercedes that.
EDGE: Ottawa

THE VERDICT:
I’m expecting a high scoring exciting series with a lot of close games, but ultimately, the gap in quality of defence and special teams will be too much for Tampa to overcome.
OTTAWA in 5

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Further evidence CBC hates the Ottawa Senators

From James Mirtle via the Globe:

The CBC's play-by-play shuffle: Bob Cole and Greg Millen will call the Ottawa series

Seriously, who's wife at CBC did Eugene Melnyk or Daniel Alfredsson sleep with? Did some Sens fan beat up one of their kids at school?

Not only do we get Greg Millen back after he left to joyous cheers for LeafsTV and their viewing audience of 11, but now senile Bob Cole as well? Be prepared for retarded analysis and a whole lot of calls containing the words "the Senators player". I for one can't wait.

My turn

Eastern Conference

(1) Ottawa vs. (8) Tampa Bay

More on this tomorrow

(2) Carolina vs. (7) Montreal
Neither team is coming into the series particularly hot, and there are now questions surrounding Martin Gerber after he silenced his critics all season long. As well, there is apparently a goaltending controversy in Montreal, which confuses me. Wasn’t the reason the Habs could trade Jose Theodore in the first place was because they had confidence in Christobol Huet’s ability to be a number one goalie? Yeah, David Aebischer had some good games, but I don’t see how this is even a tough call. Go with Huet and if he falters, you have a guy with at least some playoff experience to fall back on. Montreal’s a team I’ve developed a soft spot for, which, if you know me is very strange because growing up they were public enemy number one. What can I say, I like their scrappiness. But I’m just not convinced they have enough of it to hang with the much more talented Canes, who can throw out more offence and have a tough and seasoned defence group, which looks to be the major weakness of the Canadiens. If Sheldon Souray doesn’t rediscover his ’03-’04 game, then guys like Craig Rivet, Mathieu Dandenault, and Andrei Markov are going to have to carry too heavy a load. As we saw the last time we had playoffs, Alexei Kovalev can be a x factor, however, I see Carolina’s D as being much better equipped to handle him than the Bruins were in 2004.
Pick: Carolina in 6
Rooting Interest: Montreal

(3) New Jersey vs. (6) NY Rangers
If the Canes and Habs are coming into the playoffs lukewarm, then the Blueshirts have to be ice cold while the Devils are sizzling. The Rangers have fallen hard and fast, losing five in a row to end the season, and because of that, I don’t think they’ll reach the second round. That has to be disappointing to the Rangers faithful, who a month ago probably thought of a division title and the second round, but considering where idiot pundits like myself had them finishing back when we projected the season, a playoff birth alone is an accomplishment for this franchise. The Devils staggered through the majority of the season but are hitting their stride at the right time, finding their offence while their defensive game has been predictably great/ Like with the Canadiens, my big question mark surrounding the Rangers is their D. With that group, I’m surprised they did as well as they did this year. It’s unfortunate the addition of Sandis Ozolinsh didn’t pan out there because he could’ve really helped them. The big thing to watch will be how Henrik Lundqvist does. He’s been tremendous all season long and he has some big game experience, having won an Olympic gold medal as well as the championship in the Swedish Elite League last season, and it’s not as if he’s as young as his NHL experience might indicate. But he’s still unproven in the NHL playoffs. He’s matched up against maybe the best big game goalie of this generation (a case could be made for Patrick Roy I’m sure), and I wanna see if he will elevate his game, as we know great goalies often rise to the occasion when the guy in the other net is of high caliber. The best part of this series might not even be anything on the ice, but rather, the craziness in the MSG stands that translated over when the Devils hosted games. The ’94 Eastern Conference final between these two was memorable for that reason.
Pick: New Jersey in 6
Rooting Interest: Neither

(4) Buffalo vs. (5) Philadelphia
Special teams might end up being what decides the series. Everyone seems to think there will be an abundance of penalties called during the first round because the league wants to send the message that they’re committed to the new rules, and if that happens here, it will favor the Sabres, who had the 3rd best powerplay in the NHL this season (as well as the 2nd best PK). The Flyers were much further down at 16th, and a big part of that is the absence of Kim Johnsson, who might be as big a loss as Peter Forsberg. A lot is made of whether or not Foppa plays, and it should because he’s a gamebreaker, but Johnsson is a huge part of that team, and without him, their PP is much less potent. And now the Flyers are going with Robert Esche? Seems ridiculous to me, but Ken Hitchcock often does things that make me scratch my head. My bet is he doesn’t last in nets and Nittymaki is playing by the end. However, by then, it might be too late. Buffalo’s speed up front is ridiculous, and they can roll three lines that can score, so Hitchcock’s usual gameplan of match ups to shut down the opponent will be ineffective, as the others can and will burn you. I think it’s going to be a long series for slowpokes like Derian Hatcher, Chris Therian, and Mike Rathje, who’ll be Sheldon Souray-ed with regularity. The questions around the Sabres is their lack of playoff experience, but in the end, I believe their overwhelming talent will supercede all that.
Pick: Buffalo in 7.
Rooting Interest: Buffalo by a WIDE margin

Western Conference

(1) Detroit vs. (8) Edmonton
This won’t make me very popular in the City of Champions, but I don’t see the Oilers faring very well, and I expect a lot of Edmonton players to be playing for Team Canada over at the World Championships. Detroit has too much offence and too good a defence for an Oilers team that barely made the playoffs as it is. On paper, Edmonton has one of the best defences in the league, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t translate to their play. And the guy who was supposed to be the cure to what ails them, Dwayne Roloson, has been disappointing no matter how you want to spin it. Do the Oilers have enough talent that an upset is possible? I suppose. They’re fast and have some finishers. But the Wings have been dominant all season long, and I don’t see it ending here. I would feel bad about it because I usually like Oilers fans, but Matt over at the often headache inducing Battle Of Alberta picked Tampa to upset the Sens, so all niceness is out the window. At least, I think Matt is the one who likes the Oilers. I can never keep track amidst all the other “stuff” that goes on there.
Pick: Detroit in 5
Rooting Interest: Edmonton, I guess

(2) Dallas vs. (7) Colorado
I’m not as ambitious as Mirtle, who picked the entire thing all the way to the finals, but I am going with Dallas the Cup winner, so obviously, I don’t expect them to lose here. I just see the Stars as too deep in every position, and I think Marty Turco’s going to have a monster playoff. Mike Modano’s made me look like a pretty big moron for saying he was done as a top player before the season started, and I don’t see why he would stop embarrassing me now. Colorado does have the potential to make some noise just based on having Joe Sakic and Rob Blake, but it won’t be enough.
Pick: Dallas in 6
Rooting Interest: Dallas

(3) Calgary vs. (6) Anaheim
If that final game of the season is any indication, this’ll be the best series of the first round, and it’s certainly the one I’m having the most trouble handicapping. I picked Calgary to go all the way to the finals at the start of the season, but their offence hasn’t performed like I thought it would. However, we’ve seen that it doesn’t need to for them to win. Meanwhile, the Ducks are playing pretty good ya know, making Brian Burke the new king of Southern California hockey. The goaltending matchup is very interesting, with the Conn Smythe winner of 2003 against the guy who shoulda won it last year. Kiprusoff has been crazy good this season, but quietly Giguere has reemerged as an elite goalie. Will they use this matchup to motivate themselves, hoping to show up the other? I hope so. What it’ll come down to, I think, is can the Flames get even a tad of secondary scoring? Iginla’s gonna get a ton of Scott Niedermayer. Guys like Tony Amonte (remember him?), Kristian Huselius, and Chuck Kobasew better bring their A-game or the Flames will make an early exit. Fortunately, I think they’re up to the task for the short term.
Pick: Calgary in 7
Rooting Interest: Calgary

(4) Nashville vs. (5) San Jose
I like the Preds but they’re just too depleted to be seen as the threat they were a couple months ago. While everyone talks about how big the loss of Tomas Vokoun is, many seem to be forgetting that the status of two other important pieces of the puzzle, Steve Sullivan and Marek Zidlicky, remains in question. Zidlicky hasn’t played in 11 games (and missed the playoffs last year as well) while Sullivan has missed 8. If the Predators are without Vokoun AND these two, forget it, it’s a wrap. The Sharks will walk all over them if that’s the case. Take those two out of the lineup, you’re without 43 goals of an offence that some might say is questionable as it is. Speaking of questionable, is Vesa Toskala good enough to take the Sharks where they want to go? He’s the guy they’re going with, and he’s proven himself capable enough in the regular season, but if I was a Sharks fan, I’d be more comfortable with Nabokov and his 17 games of playoff experience. Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo will continue their magical run while Nashville fans will go home disappointed again.
Pick: San Jose in 6
Rooting Interest: Neither


UPDATE: It's been brought to my attention Tom Benamin is picking the Bolts. If all that Dany Heatley bullshit didn't get him off my Christmas Card list, this certainly will. I'd pick against his team in response, but I'm not very good at handicapping golf games 4500 kilometres away.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Answering the bell

Now that the season has been wrapped up, I figured it fitting to go back to October and look at how my predictions going into the season fared vs. how the standings ended up coming together.

MY EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Boston Bruins
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Philadelphia Flyers
4. Ottawa Senators
5. Montreal Canadiens
6. New Jersey Devils
7. Atlanta Thrashers
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
9. Pittsburgh Penguins
10. Buffalo Sabres
11. Florida Panthers
12. NY Islanders
13. Carolina Hurricanes
14. NY Rangers
15. Washington Capitals

Yikes. So I got 5 of the 8 playoff teams correct, but zero in the right place. As you can see, I greatly overestimated the Boston Bruins, who finished 13th instead of 1st. Whoops. However, you have to think had they been healthy, they would’ve been higher. And who knows how they’d have fared had Mike O’Connell not traded Joe Thornton away like a fool.

Sames goes for Philly and the Thrashers. The Flyers were hit very hard by injuries, and if they would’ve had Keith Primeau, Kim Johnsson, and Peter Forsberg for most of the season, they probably would have won the division. I said, after they were eliminated Monday night, that the Thrashers were a playoff team, and were undone by bad goaltending. Put Kari Lehtonen in there for the majority of the year and they’re playing Friday night.

However, some of these picks cannot be explained by injuries. I had Buffalo in 9th, the Hurricanes in 13th, and the Rangers in 14th. I would be really embarrassed, but I don’t think too many of you had all three of these teams, let alone two of them, making the playoffs. Who knew that the Rangers would be so good or the ‘Canes would come together? If you say you, I’ll call you a liar. Still, to think they’d be worse than the Leafs, Penguins, and Panthers looks pretty stupid in retrospect.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Calgary Flames
2. San Jose Sharks
3. Nashville Predators
4. Vancouver Canucks
5. Detroit Red Wings
6. Colorado Avalanche
7. Anaheim Mighty Ducks
8. Edmonton Oilers
9. Dallas Stars
10. Columbus Blue Jackets
11. Chicago Blackhawks
12. Minnesota Wild
13. Los Angeles Kings
14. Phoenix Coyotes
15. St. Louis Blues

I fared considerably better in projecting the West, getting 7 of the 8 playoff teams right. And let’s be honest, who out there did not have the Canucks making the postseason? Leaving Dallas out was a bit of a blunder, especially because they’re now my pick to win the Cup, but I didn’t expect Mike Modano to bounce back the way he did. I figured he was done as an impact played. Nor did I think all their Finns would be so good.

Detroit was also much better than I expected them to be. I thought the losses forced on them by the salary cap would hurt much more, but they were able to combat that with big years from Brendan Shanahan, Pavel Datsyuk, and Henrik Zetterberg while getting the goaltending they needed. It also didn’t hurt that they played in a terrible division during a time when divisional play is emphasized more than ever before.

So what have we learned? I know very little about the Eastern Conference despite the fact I see those teams much more, but on the West, I’m pretty good. Maybe you’ll want to keep that in mind when I make my playoff picks tomorrow.

UPDATE: Jeff over at SISU Hockey is much more inventive than I am and compared a bunch of bloggers’ pre-season predictions to see who fared best. That egomaniac Jes Golbez won (as if he needed another accolade), but at least I’ll take solace in the fact I did better than both Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News. And I beat James Mirtle, so believe my playoff predictions over his.

Way to combat that "Liberals are filthy liars" image

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has lost his mind

The premier says the Ottawa Senators have a "warm, welcoming and gracious" fan club with a bandwagon big enough to accommodate all the upset Toronto Maple Leaf fans.

Don't believe this man, Leaf Nation. You are not welcome. We prefer you stay crying in your beer.

A quick heads up

I'm part of a Bloggers Roundtable over at Chris Young's Just Another Blog on Sports, amongst Tom Benjamin, James Mirtle, Eric McErlain, and Paul Kukla. Which one of us doesn't belong?

Anyway, some stimulating discussion points that might be of interest to you.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Ottawa 5 NY Rangers 1

Tonight's game was said to be of the impact variety going in, and if we're working under that assumption, then what was the message that Ottawa's victory sent? On TSN, they're acting like this one game erases the last two weeks of torment, but I'm not convinced. However, it was a refreshing performance and I do feel more confident about Friday than I did 24 hours ago.

The passion that was so obviously absent in Saturday night's embarassing loss to the Leafs magically re-emerged for the win over the Rangers. That's a positive.

The new lines Bryan Murray ushered out were a hot topic, and a lot of you expressed skepticism in the comments from yesterday. I have mixed thoughts.

Without question, the best trio was the Peter Schaefer-Mike Fisher-Martin Havlat line, which shouldn't come as a surprise because this was unanimously the most excitable of the lines Murray was toying with. I think only one Debbie Downer wasn't enthused about this line's possibilities. There can be no disputing that Havlat was rusty in his first game back Saturday night. He looked a step slow most of the time while also appearing to be trying to do too much. He found his game.

"Mach 9" was flying out there. He was the best Sens player on the ice, creating a ton of scoring chances and even initiating some hitting, something that's never been a strongpoint of his. Schaefer was his usual solid self and Fisher did his job while scoring yet another highlight reel goal in the process.

The other line I was impressed with was the one I had the lowest expectations of going in: Vaclav Varada-Antoine Vermette-Chris Neil. I worried this line was going to bring down Vermette as stiffle Neil's streak, but I was proved wrong. They did exactly what a fourth line is supposed to: they created energy and took it to the Rangers every time they took the ice. On almost every occasion, when the line got tapped by the coaching staff and were on the ice, the puck was in the Rangers end. They moved the puck well, hit everything in a blue sweater, and caused a ton of commotion around the Rangers net.

On the flipside, with the exception of a handful of decent burts, I didn't like the game of the Chris Kelly-Jason Spezza-Dany Heatley, especially in their own end. Tom Renney went for power-on-power a lot of the game, putting Jaromir Jagr's line on the ice against Spezza's, and it was a disaster in the Sens end. If not for Zdeno Chara, Jagr would have probably had a hat trick by the mid-point of the game. They could not take possession of the puck for the life of themselves.

They were able to create some offence once the play moved out of their own end, but their liability as a defensive unit made it difficult

My opinion is probably in a state of purgatory on the Patrick Eaves-Bryan Smolinski-Daniel Alfredsson. They scored a goal at even strength, and Eaves had a good game, but Alfredsson wasn't the presence 5-on-5 he needs to be for this team to thrive. I did like Eaves' game in that he played with a huge chip on his shoulder, getting involved in many scrums and causing quite a bit of a ruckus. Smolinski was his usual floater self.

One of the most significant improvements over Saturday night, and let's hope it continues, was the strong play of the defenceman around the net. They left Ray Emery out to dry against the Leafs but were much more responsible and showed a willingness to eliminate opposition skaters who came too close to the net.

Emery's game was solid but unspectacular. He was technically sound but wasn't forced to make too many difficult saves because, for the most part, the team did a good job protecting him from quality second and third chances, which has been a problem when combined with Emery's rebound control issues.

Essentially, Emery played the kind of game he'll need to for the Sens to win in the playoffs. Wasn't asked to steal a game, but when called upon, made the necessary saves.

The special teams was also tremendously improved. The powerplay has been complete shit for far too long, and even when not scoring, they were in fact hurting the team by not being able to generate much scoring chances, giving momentum to the team which had successfully killed off a penalty. However, going 2 for 5 provides some hope for what has often been this team's Achille's heel all season long, and they also managed to stay out of the box.

One good game will not make me forget all the holes in this team that revealed themselves the last two weeks, but as we enter the postseason, it does quel my fears somewhat if for no other reason than to remind me that, yes, this team can play good hockey. It's been so long that I had forgotten.

A simple query

For you Sens fans (and I assume that's most of you reading this), a pretty basic question: do you feel confident about Ray Emery's ability to perform in the playoffs? A simple yes or no will suffice, but feel free to elaborate on why you feel that way.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Live by the sword and all that muckity muck

Watching the highlights of tonight's Washington-Atlanta game, I'd love to say I was surprised to see the Thrashers goaltending let them down yet again, but that would be a bold faced lie. It was almost like clockwork, and I can't imagine how frustrated the fans of that team are.

This was a playoff team, make no mistake about it. They were undone by bad luck and piss poor goaltending. A lot of that was because guys like Michael Garnett and Adam Berkholder were thrown into a situation they weren't ready for, but even the veterans who were brought into the fold failed to stabilize things. It's no coincedence the team was much better in every way with Kari Lehtonen between the pipes. He not only made the big saves when he had to, but his play gave the team confidence to play a more aggressive style and utilize all that firepower that makes them so dangerous.

One has to wonder what kind of season they would've had if Lehtonen had been healthy for even 3/4 of the year. I'm pretty confident they'd be playing Friday, that's for sure.

Even with all the turmoil and doubt in Ottawa right now as we approach the playoffs, we can at least take solice in the fact we're in the dance. Marian Hossa has to be looking on and wondering what if. He's got $6 million, but won't be in the postseason for the first time in his career.

It's time to admit Dominik's done

Today's practice did not go well. Dominik Hasek didn't take part in the full practice, instead off to the side doing his own thing. One observer described it as Hasek standing there allowing pucks to hit him rather than makes saves. He looked nothing like a goalie who's going to play anytime soon, not even going down.

The playoffs start in four games. He will not be ready, barring some miracle. The team maintained that he would be, while those of us not drinking the Kool-Aid realized that they were in denial. Even they appear to have finally realized the reality of the situation: a 41-year-old goalie with a history of groin injuries who has routinely pulled the choute in the past. You'd think John Muckler would see this coming, having been a part of it in Buffalo, but it just might be one of the many blunders he's made that should cost him his job if this season doesn't end the way we expect it to.

If Hasek is done, the finger has to be pointed at the organization and Hasek himself for allowing the situation to come this. A month ago, they should've stopped this nonsense, quit the spin in the media, and said Ray Emery is the guy. If Hasek can come back, fine, but we're going ahead assuming he won't be.

There can be no disputing this mess can be a big distraction to the team. Every day the players are asked about it. The coaches, who don't seem to be in the loop either, are asked about. It appears as though they're finally realizing what those of us with a lick of common sense did a long time ago: they had to rally around Emery.

Unfortunately, all that game time has Emery banged up. He says his hip is feeling better, but he did not look very mobile on Saturday night.

Another problem is Emery appears to have lost a lot of that confidence which made his run in March so possible. I've maintained for a while Emery is a streaky goalie, a fact I relished as the playoffs were approaching. I didn't think he would get on the opposite end of a streak like he has.

He started the season strong, hit a rut, and then rediscovered his game. He now looks to be back where he was before the Olympics, except with a bad hip. I don't think he'll sit, because he's so much of a competitor that I believe he'd play with a broken leg, but how effective can he be?

That leaves Mike Morrison as the sole survivor. A guy who the team got off waivers in March could very well be the guy between the pipes in the playoffs.

If that happens, I know who I'm sending my hate mail to.

UPDATE:The practice was also notable for it's new lines:
Chris Kelly - Jason Spezza - Dany Heatley
Patrick Eaves - Bryan Smolinski - Daniel Alfredsson
Peter Schaefer - Mike Fisher - Martin Havlat
Vaclav Varada - Antoine Vermette - Chris Neil

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Toronto 5 Ottawa 1

If the phrase "you reap what you sow" is to be applied to the game of hockey, tonight's loss by the Ottawa Senators would be as good as example to use as I can think of.

I'm going to spare you THE GOOD and THE BAD for the time being because it would be a senseless exercise. You can pretty well put everything in the second category as this game was a disaster from almost every aspect. The only positive that can be taken out of it, I suppose, is that Dany Heatley is one goal closer to the magic number 50. Sadly, by the time he scored, they were down by four goals.

The Sens came into an environment that they knew would be of heightended intensity and comparable to a playoff atmosphere, and failed to perform.

Special teams were what decided the game. Toronto took advantage of their powerplay opportunities while the Sens shit them away, getting little in the way of scoring chances on the way to putting up yet another goose egg with the man advantage. Over the last five games, Ottawa is something stupid crazy like 3 for 30 on the powerplay. You will not win many games with that kind of bullshit, and certainly not when you give the other team seven PPs to work with.

Knowing the PP is struggling, why not try some new things? Mike Fisher hasn't gotten consistent powerplay time in I don't know how long, even though he's certainly earned it with his work at even strength and on the penalty kill. Same goes for Antoine Vermette. Is Bryan Murray afraid to sit one of the established top guns even though they're not delivering the goods? I'd like to think he's got bigger balls than that.

Simply hoping that the problem will fix itself has proven itself to be ineffective, because if that was going to happen, it would have by now. I don't have the solutions to make it better, because I'm not a hockey coach, but I do know that it doesn't appear as if those whose job is it to fix these things aren't making it a priority.

Many key players did not carry their load. Daniel Alfredsson had a good third period, but that didn't erase from my memory the 40 minutes of hockey that came before it, when the game was still in reach. He was missing passes, not finishing his checks, and turning the puck over. I don't know if the boos were getting to him, but he did not play like they need him to. It's been well established that Alfie is the straw that stirs this team's drink, and so when he shits the bed this badly, the entire team seems to follow suit. In contrast, when he mans up and puts them on his bag, it's gold.

The defence was terrible. They let Toronto skaters go the net without anything even resembling trouble. The only Sens d-man who had some punch in his game was Anton Volchenkov, but his less-than-stellar play with the puck overshadowed that vigor. Andrej Meszaros hasn't looked like the rookie sensation we were all in awe of for a while. Is he tired? Zdeno Chara was a pussycat out there. Is he still hurt?

Also, I know I've said this before, but for fuck's sake, can this team please hit the damn net! 21 missed shots is not acceptable. If need be, set up those firing targets in the corners of the net that we all practiced with in our driveways as kids. This is a problem. Correct it, ASAP, because it's been rearing it's head throughout the year with no action being taken to remedy it. If these million hockey players find it insulting to have to practice shot accuracy, who cares. Keep them on the ice all day if that's what it takes.

I have no evidence to support this claim, but I lay the blame for this phenomenon at the feet of those awful composite sticks. Maybe I have a revisionist memory, but I don't remember this many missed shots 10 years ago. Now, in addition to the fact they seem to break at the worst times, it happens all the time. I realize they give you more speed on your shot, but what use is a 90 mph slapshot if it hits glass?

I'm beginning to get worried about this team. We can no longer point to the injuries as the reason for the team's problems. Scapegoats like Brad Norton and Filip Novak are gone. Even Martin Havlat is back. Sure, Dominik Hasek is still out, but they're going to have to get over that, because I believe that will remain the case. The only lingering injury is to Chris Phillips, and while the team is weakened without him, it's not the kind of injury that should be crippling the team to this extent. Saying "when x player comes back, we'll be all right!" is foolish.

The most frustrating part of Saturday night's debacle was that, as we saw in the third period, this team can turn it on and be dominant. Of course, by then, the Leafs were not pressuring nearly as hard and had given the Sens the openings, but regardless, on the Ottawa side, it was a completely different team. Unfortunately, by then, it was too little too late.

And that's not a new issue for the team this season. There have been many nights were the Sens fail to show up for the majority of the game. At some point, something somewhere clicks instead them collectively and we finally see the great team. On a lot of nights, they can get away with this and still get some points out of it. That was the case in Thursday night's OT loss to Florida.

However, it's one thing to do this with teams that aren't playoff bound. Against a team as red hot as the Leafs are right now, it's asking for trouble, and if they try this nonsense in a week when the postseason does start, they'll be the victims of another early exit.

As a fan, I won't tolerate that. If the team gives its all and comes up short, so be it. But I'll be damned if they once again squander a great team by not coming to play. What right does this group have to be overconfident? How many Cups have they won? Fine, they've been great regular season performers, but that and a couple quarters will get you a cup of coffee. Those President's Trophy banners may be shiny and pretty up in the rafters but they mean a whole lot less than one with Stanley Cup Champions written on it.

They have one more game, against a pretty good Rangers team in a building they've struggled in, to get their shit together. I suggest they take that opportunity, come together as a team, fix what is ailing them, and get ready for a long playoff run, because anything less than that will not be accepted by the fans of this market. The bar has been set high for some time, and the organization has embraced this high standard and reaped its benefits at the box office with record crowds this year. It's up to the guys on the ice to play their part. The pieces are in place for this team to prosper.

Yes, this was a meaningless Saturday night loss to a team with a whole lot more to play for than the Sens, but it was the ease in which they rolled over, the utter and complete lack of emotion, and the non-existant pride that you would think would drive them to play hard and eliminate their biggest rival that made my blood boil. It paints a worrisome picture of what's to come.

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