Sunday, April 29, 2007

Senators 2 Devils 3 (2OT)

Senators Goals
Alfredsson (4) from Spezza (4) and Heatley (5)
Heatley (4) from Spezza (5) and Vermette (2)

1 for 6 on the PP
5 for 7 on the PK

Emery stopped 30 of 33 shots.

Attending Media 3 Stars:
1. Langenbrunner
2. Heatley
3. Brodeur

My 3 Stars:
1. Brodeur
2. Langenbrunner
3. Heatley
Very, very honourable mention to Alfredsson.

The typical, and the atypical. Senators fail to take a 2-0 stranglehold on a series; nothing doing here. Senators score in the waning seconds against a team most reputed for its ability to hold on to close leads - perhaps an occasion to celebrate. Until the final score is reflected upon, of course. The line to be oft-repeated from the lips of players over the next few days is surely foreseeable, "we went in for the split in their barn, and we got it". After a difficult loss, perhaps this is all that matters. The score is 1-1, but the Senators have stolen home ice advantage from New Jersey; the series is still young and the Senators have yet play at Scotiabank Place. Certainly, this is a better situation than going to the Mellon Arena with a 1-1 series tie exactly two weeks ago. There are points of optimism to be found in the game - the heart and effort it took to climb back from a 2-0 deficit against, without a doubt, the best goaltender in the world. The best defensive team in the NHL. The best lead-holding team in the NHL. And the Senators clawed through it, on a night that was certainly not their best outside of the top 3 forwards, to force it to overtime. The Senators did not show up in the first, their goaltender let in a weak goal and gave up on another, only one line showed up, and the Senators still managed to give them a significant run for their money. A win would have been nice - a win would have been fantastic. The overtime goal should not have happened, perhaps, but Langenbrunner did exactly what he needed to do - Emery, Neil, Corvo and Preissing did not. Shake it off, build on the good, and come back to a raucous arena on Monday night. The Devils are breakable. They cracked tonight, they broke on Thursday. The performance of the Senators' big line played a large part in it; now imagine the Senators' might if the other 9 forwards can chip in offensively.

The bad will be dwelt upon by the media and fans enough over the next two days, as is the case with any Senators loss. So, initially, to focus on the good:

Daniel Alfredsson. For the second night in the row, Alfredsson was hands down the best player on the ice. No one but Alfredsson knows what's different right now; the fact is, this is the best he's ever played, playoffs or otherwise. Better than his Calder-winning season, better than his early playoffs before he wore the C, better than his Hart-calibre season last year. He's playing with a chip on his shoulder, that little bit of edge he might have lacked in years past. He's carrying this team on his back, and miraculously, unlike in years past, not collapsing under the pressure. He's leading by example and driving teammates to up their game. He willed this team to erase a deficit. He single-handedly killed off the majority of an ill-timed 5 on the 3, drove the second period offensive resurgence (including scoring the first Senators goal on the power play to bring them within one). There's nothing much new here - this is Alfie in the playoffs circa 2007. Gritty and driven. Win or loss, Alfie was not going to give a drop less than 100% tonight.

Dany Heatley. When Heatley dropped to block that shot in overtime, I finally felt he was committed to being a playoff performer. Heatley had come into Ottawa with a false reputation of being that gritty, hard-hitting, hard-working, prototypical Canadian forward, because he'd donned a Team Canada jersey a couple times and was missing a tooth. His first year here revealed some undesirable tendencies in Heatley's game; he often floated, was rarely physical, and relied on Spezza to carry the play. In his first playoff, he performed adequately in the wide-open Tampa series, but was AWOL when the going got tough in the Buffalo series. Come 06-07, his game improved tenfold with the Spezza injury, and it became clear that Heatley was at his best when he was allowed to carry to play, and when he forced himself to get physical. Few people would criticise his play in the second half. Come playoff time, there were still question marks, and a lacklustre Pittsburgh series didn't help to assuage doubtful minds, even with the excuse of a probable ankle injury. But here we are after a week's worth of rest, and Heatley has absolutely exploded. We've got a gamebreaker on our hands. He's understanding what it takes to win, and the crucial role he's been handed in ensuring this happens. Yeah yeah his 10 GWG in the regular season might have proved how flawed that stat was in measuring the elusive "clutchness", but tonight's goal? There's no doubt. That was as clutch as a Senator has ever been. As evidenced by his key assist on the Alfredsson goal, Heatley played as pivotal a role as possible in the Senators' resurgence tonight. It might not have been a victory, but it did show an immense step in the development of Heatley the playoff warrior.

Jason Spezza. Same old same old. Two killer assists that were just "instinct". Typical, typical Spezza.

Wade Redden. He's getting his standard Team 1200 bashing tonight, but I think he's been great since game 5 of the Pittsburgh series. I don't know if it was injuries, lack of confidence, lack of interest or just bad luck, but Redden is slowly curing himself of it to become, thank heavens, Redden. Welcome back.

Chris Neil, Mike Comrie and the Phillips pairing had much better games tonight. Mike Fisher and Peter Schaefer were off kilter. Despite the poor decision to pinch, I was happy with Corvo and Preissing's game.

0.2 seconds!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Senators 5 Devils 4

I am actually flipping out!! This is a terrible feeling!
Ottawa Goals
Spezza (3) from Preissing (3) and Heatley (3)
Corvo (1) - unassisted
McAmmond (2) - unassisted
Heatley (3) - unassisted
Redden (1) from Spezza (3) and Heatley (4)

2 for 4 on the PP
3 for 3 on the PK

Emery 4 Goals on 30 Shots

"Attending Media" 3 Stars:
1. Spezza
2. Heatley
3. Langenbrunner

Team 1200 3 Stars:
1. Spezza
2. Heatley
3. Parise
Hardest working: Alfredsson

My 3 stars:
1. Heatley
2. Alfredsson
3. Gomez
Very, very honorable mentions to Spezza, Corvo and Redden.

And so it begins. Another playoff round, another blown lead by the Senators. Only this time, unlike game 2 of the Pittsburgh series, the Senators held on. The tale of the tape might say the Senators blew a 4-0 lead, just a goalpost away from being tied 4-4 not twenty minutes later, but the only numbers that will matter come Saturday's game: Senators 1, Devils 0 in a 7 game showdown. Taking notes during the first period, I felt a very familiar pattern emerge, something debuted in game 1 on the Pittsburgh series. "This is the best the Senators have ever played in the post-season". Come game 3, I was correcting myself, "no, this is the best they've ever played". Similar corrections ensued come game 4 and, ultimately, game 5. Each performance better than the last. The issue with a "best" performance is that, well, it's not often supposed to be topped. Yet come tonight's game, just over a minute in, the familiar thought surfaced. This is the best the Senators have ever played. Twenty minutes later, I remembered why it's best not to get ahead of myself, but the fact remains: the Senators had an exceptionally strong start, enough character and goaltending to battle through an exceptionally feeble middle, and enough intestinal fortitude to hang on by a hair to an exceptionally fragile lead. And yet, the series score reads Ottawa 1, New Jersey 0. And so it is.

The Senators came into tonight's game in a curious position. Starting on the road for the first time since 03-04, and coming off a weeklong layover which allowed bodies to heal, but left far too much time for players, media and fans to stew, tonight's outcome was all but impossible to predict. The Senators would have the advantage because of fully healthy bodies; the Devils would have the advantage because they were still on a high from their series victory over Tampa Sunday afternoon. The Senators would have an advantage because they would be on the road, out of the glare of the Canadian media spotlight; the Devils would have the advantage due to home ice. Devils had the better goaltender; the Senators the better offense. On and on the comparisons weighed. The game was expected to be a tight, defensive, disciplined, one-goal game New Jersey has so proudly popularised. It was a one-goal game alright, but the surprise lies in the 5-4, not so much the one goal differential.

On to the positives.

Dany Heatley. He had, easily, his best playoff performance of his young career. The week-long layoff clearly helped him get it together, physically and otherwise. He identified a weakness in the Devils and Brodeur, and lead the charge in exploiting it. He scored a goal on an absolute laser of a shot, and was a key part of the Senators offense tonight, setting up two other goals and driving the powerplay. He was physical, going to the net hard, and much more controlled with his rushes. He was very noticeable on the backcheck. Injuries in the Pittsburgh round or not, this Heatley needs to stay. It's long been said that for the Senators to go anywhere in the playoffs it will be on the back of Heatley. Now, we've gotten a considerable distance with him playing a bit role, but this is the Heatley the Senators need to make any true dent in the playoffs.

Daniel Alfredsson. There is very little that can be said about Alfredsson's recent play that would be revelatory; he's been leading the charge since the first drop of the puck on April 11th, and it was no different tonight. What Senators fan didn't pump a fist when Alfredsson laid out a Devil, leading directly to Spezza's goal just 1:30 in? He was on the ice for all 5 Senators goals, and none of the Devils goals. I know when he doesn't get points, the bashers come out in full force wondering if Alfie is really the guy to lead this team. If only they'd watch him play and ignore the stats sheet; Alfredsson has been night in and night out, the Senators best player this post-season. Exactly what a captain should be.

Joe Corvo. Good news. His fantastic first round play wasn't driven by naivety of how his inexperience was supposed to ensure a disastrous performance; it was driven by being damn awesome. His PP goal was, in short, sick. Congratulations to Corvo on his first playoff goal, here's to many more. See how easy you make it look when you aim 5ft lower than usual, Joe? You know, at the net?

Wade Redden. He looked really good in Game 5 too, so tonight's solid performance was another indication of a substantial turnaround. I have no qualms with saying Redden was our best defenseman on the ice tonight. And it wasn't about Phillips and Volchenkov struggling, making him the best by default, it was about Redden stepping up. On the offensive side, his PP goal just seconds in to the third period was exactly what he needed. It was game-winner, and it was against New Jersey. Here's to hoping his confidence continues to build.

Jason Spezza. I have nothing much new to add here, just the same things I've been saying all playoffs. He's clutch and steps up when the going gets tough. At both ends of the ice. Here was yet another game, with victory on the line, where Spezza was trusted to be out there in waning minutes. Actually, not just "trusted". Depended on. Wanted out there. And suddenly, this is no longer becoming a matter of note or a talking point. On the ice to protect a lead? It's just Spezza being Spezza. Backchecking? It's just Spezza being Spezza. It's taken a very, very long time, but it feels great to say it.

Pizza Line. Just to mention their cumulative nullification of the Madden line checking. The best checking line in the NHL (a title I fully award to the Madden line), was on the ice for 4 of the Senators 5 goals. Spezza, Heatley and Alfredsson may have been up against the Leafs' 4th line for all the impact they had. Or perhaps not so - the added challenge probably encouraged the Senators stars to up their game even further - no complaints from this corner.

Dean McAmmond. This guy is built for the playoffs. What a goal. What a player. Please come back next year.

And now, the bad.

Comrie and the Fisher Line. Aside from one great individual power drive by Fisher, this whole line was off tonight. Comrie in particular, who had his worst game since the early March Chicago game. He was solely responsible for the Greene goal, and though he tried to atone for a blueline turnover by blocking the shot, he only ended up screening Emery. He took some pretty weak penalties, including the momentum-shifting hooking penalty to start the third, and could understandably be labeled a goat tonight. Murray seemed to think so, benching him late in the third in favour of McAmmond. He's been so strong for us so far this post-season, there is hope that tonight's game was just an anomaly. Fisher and Schaefer had yet another acceptable game of providing energy and physicality, but that's not sufficient for a 2nd line. Some production is expected.

Phillips and Volchenkov. A difficult night to be sure. I think the layoff had a negative effect on these two; though it did allow the bumps and bruises to heal, all the intensity and momentum has worn off, and it will take them a couple days to ramp it back up again. I have no doubt they will be our stars, it's just a momentary fallout due to lack of play. Phillips in particular looked sluggish and sloppy. Volchenkov wasn't so bad, but the communication between the two was poor and they seemed altogether out of sync. Much better is expected of them Saturday; I don't doubt they will provide it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Devils Keys to Victory

I thought I'd try something different. Since every Sens fan and their dog knows the key to an Ottawa victory, I thought I'd try to concentrate on ways in which New Jersey can succeed. The Senators' purpose is evidently to avoid creating circumstances in which the Devils are allowed to prosper.

1. Discipline
The Devils are already the most disciplined team in the NHL, so this is more keeping up good habits than having to radically adjust their game. While Ottawa doesn't have the lights-out power play of 05-06 and years past, they still ranked second overall in the playoffs with 25% efficiency, and a remarkable 33% efficiency on the road. Staying out of the box is the first step to neutralising Heatley, Spezza and Alfredsson. Even if they do take penalties, NJ has a top notched penalty kill (4th in the league during the regular season). Keeping up with more of the same will ensure they win at least half of the special teams battle.

2. Assault 2nd and 3rd defense pairings
Phillips-Volchenkov will likely be matched up against the Gomez line, and shoulder the bulk of the ice time. But while Corvo and Preissing had a strong series against Pittsburgh, they can be had. All 4 defenseman not named Phillips or Volchenkov have been shying away from physical contact lately, both in delivering and taking hits. Play them hard and aggressive, and, even if they don't back down, they will make mistakes. Meszaros, Corvo and Redden in particular have proven to have shaky confidence throughout the season, and all it may take is one undressing to throw them off their game. The Parise line in particular can make quick work of any of these guys with a little effort and determination. Get under their skin, rattle them up, and they might just break.

3. Refuse to let Ottawa take control
Unlike teams like Tampa Bay or Buffalo, Ottawa has shown great willingness to play New Jersey's game, particularly in the last meeting between the two clubs on April 3rd. Perhaps Ottawa won't let this happen, but NJ needs to do their best to maintain control of the style and pace of the game. Ottawa has proven they can play defensive hockey, and might be willing to go toe-to-toe with NJ. Problem is, no one does defensive hockey better than the Devils. Force the Senators to play conservative, pounce-on-the-first-mistake hockey, and the Devils will come out on top more times than not.

4. Win the Goalie Battle
This shouldn't be too difficult for Brodeur. He's proven over the past 12+ seasons that he's a Hall of Fame goaltender, coming off perhaps his best ever season. For all of Emery's swagger, Brodeur has the stats, silverware and consistency to back his confidence up. Ottawa has proven time and time again that a hot goalie can be their undoing - a hot all-star goaltender all the more. Hold them off for the first game or two, and they'll fold under their own disappointment.

5. Take Advantage of Home Ice
Over the past couple seasons, Ottawa has been a very strong road team in the playoffs, but only average at home. Since New Jersey has home ice advantage in this series, if they can keep Ottawa in check at the Meadowlands, a series win will not be out of the question. The crucial game 7 will also be in New Jersey.

Sens-Devils Unsubstantiable Predictions

First goal of the series is scored by Dany Heatley.
Last goal of the series is scored by Brian Gionta.
Jason Spezza and Zach Parise will lead their teams in goals.
Jason Spezza and Scott Gomez will lead their teams in points.
Antoine Vermette and Jay Pandolfo will fail to record a goal.
Chris Neil and Paul Martin will fail to record a point.
Senators will have a better PP but worse PK than NJ.
At least one game with 2 goals or less scored.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Senators-Devils Tilt Confirmed

With the New Jersey Devils' game 6 elimination of the Tampa Bay Lightning Sunday afternoon, the stage is set for a Senators-Devils matchup in round two of the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs. Having met twice previously in the post-season, the Eastern conference powerhouses split the series victories 1-1. In 1998, the upstart Senators defeated the 1st-place NJ Devils in 6 games to advance to the second round; it was the Senators first series victory in modern Senators history. In 2002-03, the two teams rematched in the Eastern Conference Final, a nail-biting series which saw the President's Trophy winning Senators claw back from a 3-1 series deficit to force game 7, thanks to an overtime goal from stalwart defenseman Chris Phillips. Despite holding a lead on home ice in the final game of the series, the Senators allowed the Devils to tie the game and, eventually advance to the Stanley Cup final on the heels of a Jeff Freisen goal in the waning minutes of the game. The Devils went on to face the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the finals, winning their 3rd Stanley Cup with another 7-game victory. Though more recent Ottawa-NJ regular season games have gained reputation as cautious, defensive chess-matches, their playoff encounters have proven to be anything but boring or unexciting.

In the 06-07 regular season, the Devils outmatched the Senators, as Ottawa fell 1-2-1 in the season series. While the Senators feeble record in one-goal games was highlighted against the Devils (all 3 losses were by a single goal), there were encouraging signs in this year's games. First was a late October game, in which the struggling Senators seemed to be revived against a (usually) unflappable Brodeur; Ottawa thoroughly embarrassed NJ in a 8-1 thrashing, the Devils worst loss in over 15 NHL seasons. The following three games proved to be much less one-sided, however. A late November game saw the Parise-Zajac-Langenbrunner line single-handedly force an early 3-0 deficit, even as the Senators were playing well. Though Ottawa clawed back to within one, as expected the Devils' unflinching defensive play secured a 3-2 victory. In an early January afternoon game, during a strong stretch of Senators play in the absence of Jason Spezza, Emery's valiant efforts were not enough to withstand yet another 3-2 loss. The two teams did not meet again until the last week of the season, when the Devils were battling for the Division crown, and the Senators were looking to secure home ice advantage with the 4th seed. The game was particularly of note as it came just one day after the firing of Devils' coach Claude Julien. The game was perhaps not the most energetic, and it wasn't until a minute-long stretch in the middle of the third period that any goals were scored (only two, one by each team). The game went to overtime and then a shootout, and though the Senators stretched it to a 6th shooter, John Madden foiled Emery to give the Devils the game, ultimately securing the Atlantic title and forcing a Senators-Penguins first round matchup.

The series is expected to start Wednesday or Thursday. Scheduling is not yet confirmed, and with the New Jersey Nets' NBA playoffs series against the Toronto Raptors taking place coincidently, there is a possibility of back-to-back games or two-day layovers. However, it is to be expected that a Saturday night game will take place, likely at the Continental Airlines Arena.

In the days leading up to the series, I will attempt to offer a playoff "preview" of sorts, with keys to victory for both teams, and possible predictions for what will surely be a tightly contested series.

Final Update on My Prediction Results


First goal of the series is scored by Mike Comrie.
First goal of the series is scored by Andrej Meszaros.

Last goal of the series is scored by Evgeni Malkin.
Last goal of the series is scored by Chris Kelly.

Most goals in the series are scored by Jason Spezza and Evgeni Malkin.
Most goals are scored by Daniel Alfredsson/Chris Kelly/Sidney Crosby/Jordan Staal.

Most points in the series are scored by Jason Spezza and Sidney Crosby.
Half right. Most points by Daniel Alfredsson, followed by Sidney Crosby.

Ray Emery records a better GAA but worse Save % than MA Fleury.
Half right.

Jocelyn Thibault will make one appearance in relief.

2 games will go to overtime; Mike Fisher and Maxime Talbot will record the game winners.

Daniel Alfredsson and Mark Recchi will be held goalless.
Half right.

Ottawa's highest scoring defenseman will be Joe Corvo; Sergei Gonchar will fill this role for the Pens.
True, although Anton Volchenkov was (unbelievably) tied.

Anton Volchenkov and Josef Melichar will be held without a single point.
Half true.

Chris Neil and Gary Roberts will record the most penalty minutes.
Not even close. Neil had 0 to Roberts' 2 PIM. Colby Armstrong (11), Chris Phillips (10) and Jarkko Ruutu (10) lead the way.

The series will go to 6 games.
Wrong, 5.

There will be at least one game with a combined goal total exceeding 9.
No, although they did hit 9 in the first game.

There will be at least one game where a goaltender records a shutout.
Game 5, Ray Emery.

Stay tuned for the NJ-OTT predictions, guaranteed to be 4% accurate.

Saprykin a cure for Sens PP woes?

Perhaps woes might not be the most appropriate term considering the Senators' power play ranked 2nd in the playoffs at 25% efficiency (with a remarkable 33% efficiency on the road), there is still much room for improvement. A power play which features such offensive mights as Alfredsson, Heatley, Spezza and Redden should ideally be scoring more often than once every four or five opportunities. When Murray feels the powerplay needs a boost of grit and willingness to crash the crease, he throws Chris Neil on as a body in front of the net. On occasions this works and it's certainly not a poor idea to mix things up when things aren't flowing smoothly. In addition to the use of Neil, I propose Saprykin can be a utile tool to infuse an impotent power play with a little energy and enthusiasm.

In the March 3rd game against Chicago, Murray rewarded Saprykin's energetic play (including an impossible-angle goal on Patrick Lalime), with a slot on the powerplay. Saprykin's role was the stand in front of the net and cause trouble; he did just that, giving the defender trouble and distracting Lalime enough to allow an Alfredsson goal. In his two playoff games, he has shown an unexpected tenacity and willingness to shot from any angle, crash the crease with abandon, and generally do whatever it takes. He's been accused of running around like "a chicken with its head cut off". This may be exactly what we need to beat such a sound goalie as Brodeur or Lundqvist; someone unpredictable and unbalanced to get in a goaltender's face and distract him enough to allow the stars to work their magic. If he is given control of the puck, he'll shoot from anywhere and everywhere and Heatley will surely be buzzing around the net to pick up the garbage, or vice versa. It's worth a shot, at least.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Senators 3 Penguins 0

Ottawa Goals
Heatley (2) from Alfredsson (3) and Preissing (2)
Vermette (1) from Kelly (1)
Kelly (3) from Neil (1) and Vermette (1)

3 Stars from Team 1200
1. Emery
2. Vermette
3. Kelly

3 stars from me
1. Emery
2. Vermette
3. Kelly
(if it isn't broken...)

For the second year in a row, the Ottawa Senators advance to the second round with a well-earned 5 game series win. Despite losing the second game of the series in Ottawa to allow the Penguins to draw even, the Senators went on to win the next 3 games to clinch the series. Though it was only a first round victory, the Senators exorcised many demons; they played aggressive and physical, forechecked aggressively, were absolutely stellar on the penalty kill, and despite a disappointing power play, managed to outscored the Penguins 18-10. Tonight's game was perhaps the most complete game the Senators have ever played in the post-season.

With many positives, I'll try to zero in on a few of the key ones:

Ray Emery. His name is Raaaaaay. First ever playoff shutout, first Senators playoff shutout in 4 years, and exactly the kind of performance we've been hoping for. While he wasn't excellent in the first two games, he was absolutely stellar in the final 3 and made what could have been a very long series into a very short one. He was clearly our #1 PKer and earned every inch of that shutout just based on his play in the first 3 minutes. Pittsburgh didn't give him a whole lot of work, no, but that's a more difficult scenario for a goalie. He stopped everything they threw at them, with no exceptions - that's perfect goaltending.

Penalty killing. Not just tonight, the Senators completely neutralised one of the league's most potent powerplays, not allowing a single power play goal in the last three games. Though it was frustrating to see the team take penalties you just can't take (puck over glass, closing hand on the puck and so on), and giving the typically-stellar Penguins PP two 5 on 3s in the first 5 minutes of the game, the PK shut things down completely. For all the flak our PP has been receiving lately, we can't complain about special teams on the whole; the boys did everything right when a man down.

Antoine Vermette. Only a couple minutes in I could just feel Vermette's energy; I knew he was going to score tonight. He was buzzing on the PK, very aggressive, and was a key reason why the Senators were able to wrap it up tonight. He's had difficulty putting the puck in the net in the second half of the season, despite some great efforts, so it was a great relief to see him finally get rewarded for his great effort. The Vermette-Kelly-Neil line was easily the best on the ice and the Vermette-Kelly PK pairing was stymied the Penguins admirably. To succeed in the playoffs guys like Vermette need to step up - and they have.

Chris Kelly. Most of my comments on Vermette can be applied to Kelly as well. He was buzzing in both ends of the ice, and a key part of our success not just tonight but throughout the whole series. Tied for the team lead in goals with 3, from a guy I've always criticised for having hands of stone? Kelly has stepped up incredibly in this series and deserves all the credit he can get.

Wade Redden. Still not quite there, but he looked much better tonight. He was finally getting physical, and it improved his game exponentially. He was only credited with one hit, but watching the game you could see he was definitely throwing the body around a lot more than 1 registered hit might imply. Give him credit, he was a big part of our PK success, and finished +2 on the night. Hopefully the week's rest will get him back closer to where he should be; he's been a major disappointment this season and this series, but he played decently tonight.

Jason Spezza. 0 points, and it's one of the best games he's ever played. 0 shots on net, 1 brutal penalty, and it's still one of the best games he's ever played. If all the Spezza bashers would please stand up... this guy has developed immensely over the past two seasons. Sure he was still trying to be a little too fancy, and forced a couple passes that just weren't there, especially on that 2-1 with Alfie where a shot would have been a sure goal, but I could not be prouder of Spezza's performance in the series if he had finished with 40 points. He's shored up his defensive game and is just playing smart hockey. Spezza is going to be a Sakic/Yzerman type in another 5 years, I can just feel it. Never let this guy go.

Oleg Saprykin. I love this guy. Muckler was heavily criticised for picking him up instead of Roberts at the deadline, but Saprykin has been fantastic for us in the past two games. It's unfortunate Ottawa is such a deep team, because Saprykin deserves far better than the fourth line, and once Eaves comes back he'll be sitting again. Saprykin has done nothing but give his all every shift, he's got some great hands, and he gets in people's faces after whistles, sticking up for his teammates. He's about as far from the stereotypical heartless Russian as you can get. I'm not arguing he should be taking someone's lineup spot since they deserve it as much or more as him, but Saprykin has done absolutely nothing to merit his spot as an injury fill-in. Still, he doesn't complain about his treatment and gives his everything whenever he gets a slot in the lineup. He makes the fourth line exciting. Regardless of what happens to him next year, I'll be cheering him on. I love this guy.

Peter Schaefer and the Fisher line
. I've been ragging on Schaefer all season long, but he's been great so far in the playoffs. He doesn't have many points, so perhaps he's not an ideal second-line winger, but he's been generating chances and looks great out there with Fisher and Comrie. This line may need to score a little more, but they're doing everything else out there. He also deserves major props for yet another night of great penalty killing.

Volchenkov coming out in the last few minutes to protect a lead after (presumably) throwing his shoulder out is just pure bravery and heart.Dany Heatley and Andrej Meszaros had much better games. Hopefully the week off will let Heatley get back to 100%, and Mezzy to keep working on the confidence. He's getting there. Slowly. Oh so slowly.

I don't want to talk about negatives. We're on to the second round! We've got a week of the Toronto media mulling the ways in which we'll choke (or still talking about Roberts); let's just enjoy this for now.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Comrie Finding a Role in Ottawa

Earlier today ran an insightful article on Comrie's resurgence in Ottawa. The article features some praising quotes from his teammates, including Fisher, Neil and Alfredsson, and is a great read.

Though his slump through mid February to early March (rumoured to be caused by lingering effects of the flu and a nagging shoulder injury) left some fans slightly dissatisfied with the acquisition, Comrie's reliable clutch play and ramped up energy early in the post-season has made the trade look like the steal of the year. Acquired for suspended young centre Alexei Kaigorodov, a promising player but one who had no future with the Senators organisation, Comrie was reportedly the "plan B" move by GM John Muckler as a band-aid for the injury troubles the Senators ran into in late December 2006, when the team found themselves without the services of their top three centres for an extended stretch. Plan A was the acquisition of Petr Nedved from the Philadelphia Flyers via re-entry waivers; Muckler's reluctance to pull the trigger on a Comrie deal was more likely out of salary cap concerns than any coveting of Nedved. Traded on the morning of January 3, 2007, Comrie flew from Carolina (where his former Phoenix Coyotes teammates would be playing the next night), to Ottawa by way of Washington and Toronto, to make it to Scotiabank Place within an hour of the nightly deadline for roster changes. Cleared by Senators medical staff, Comrie dressed that night for a game against the rival Buffalo Sabres. If it weren't for a jaw-dropping performance by his power-play linemate Dany Heatley, Comrie might have turned in the best performance of the night, marking 2 assists.

There had been questions about his attitude and commitment, and concerns about his chemistry with teammates and coaches when he arrived in Ottawa, his 4th NHL city in just 6 seasons. He had posted 2 30-goal seasons, including on the dismal Phoenix Coyotes in 05-06, but had little opportunity to prove his worth on a team with depth, or in an intense scenario like the NHL playoffs. In his limited playoff experience with the Edmonton Oilers, he never ventured past the first round. Comrie was maligned by Edmonton fans following a salary dispute, and among NHL fans there was little desire to risk adding him to their roster, despite his able production.

So while Senators fans approached the trade with some trepidation, glad to have an able injury fill-in, perhaps a temporary second line centre for Daniel Alfredsson, there was little thought that he would truly fit in as an Ottawa Senator. This was almost confirmed in February; the initial excitement had worn off. Comrie was stalled as a third line centre to Chris Neil; he didn't up his game much when playing as a third line winger to Antoine Vermette and Chris Kelly. It wasn't until a late February game against his former team, the Edmonton Oilers (where he recorded a humdinger of a shootout winner) that Comrie rewoke. Still, he struggled through early March, culminating in a disappointing performance in a loss to Chicago, after which Comrie admitted he was afraid to make mistakes on the ice for fear of being marginalised. But as the regular season wore down, Comrie was perhaps the most consistent performer, recording 6 points in the final 5 games. Comrie stepped up his game even further in the playoffs, recording 2 goals and 1 assist, and buzzing around the ice like nobody's business. He's hitting everything with a pulse, being more creative in the offense zone than any other player on the ice (Senator or not), and has even stepped up his defensive play. He's stood up for his teammates on two occasions, first by dropping the gloves late in game one (though the ref restrained his would-be opponent), and then squaring off against pest Colby Armstrong. He set up the game-winner on Tuesday night with a mind-blowingly perfect setup to Volchenkov. He's doing everything right. Right now, there's hardly a Senators fan who wouldn't want Comrie back next year at any price. Well, the lustre may wear off as the playoffs continue or once we've had time to re-evaluate come the off-season, but it can safely be said that a half-season of Comrie was worth far more to the Senators than Kaigorodov ever would have been. All in all? Great move Muckler.

Another Update on my Laughably Inaccurate Predictions

Green = correct

Red = wrong

First goal of the series is scored by Mike Comrie.
First goal of the series is scored by Andrej Meszaros.

Most goals in the series are scored by Jason Spezza and Evgeni Malkin.
Spezza is in the running but this is highly unlikely to come true.

Most points in the series are scored by Jason Spezza and Sidney Crosby.
Very possible when all is said and done.

Ray Emery records a better GAA but worse Save % than MA Fleury.
Better GAA and only slightly better Save %... it could happen.

Jocelyn Thibault will make one appearance in relief.

2 games will go to overtime; Mike Fisher and Maxime Talbot will record the game winners.
Looking unlikely.

Daniel Alfredsson and Mark Recchi will be held goalless.
Half true so far.

Ottawa's highest scoring defenseman will be Joe Corvo; Sergei Gonchar will fill this role for the Pens.
Still true.

Anton Volchenkov and Josef Melichar will be held without a single point.
Half true. I underestimated my Senators.

We'll have to wait and see for the other predictions.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Senators 2 Penguins 1

Senators Goals
Spezza (2) from Redden (3) and Corvo (4)
Volchenkov (1) from Comrie (1) and Schaefer (3)

Team 1200 3 Stars
1. Emery
2. Fleury
3. Volchenkov
Hardest working: Phillips

Pittsburgh media 3 stars
1. Volchenkov
2. Emery
3. Staal

Mellon Arena's 3 Stars
1. Volchenkov
2. Staal
3. Emery

CBC's 3 Stars

My 3 stars

1. Emery
2. Comrie
3. Staal
Hardest working: Saprykin (!)

For all the flak Ottawa received losing Game 2 on Saturday and failing to take a 2-0 series lead for the first time in Senators history, it would be nice to see an equal amount of praise for taking a stranglehold of the series with two consecutive wins on Pittsburgh ice. It wasn't the perfect performance by the Senators, which makes the victory all the more impressive. Pittsburgh came out strong, continued strong, and finished strong. They were aggressive, physical, much more disciplined, and Ottawa still clawed out a win. Pittsburgh might have even deserved a victory here with their strong play, but Ottawa got it instead. And notice the final scoreline? The dreaded one goal game? Mark a rare one in the win column for the Senators.

Were this a Penguins blog I'd focus on the strong performances from Staal, Fleury and Roberts. As it is not, I'll keep it short and say these guys are giving it their all, and I'd take any one of them on my team any day. After shaking off the nerves of game 1, Fleury has been equal to or better than Emery on almost every occasion. Staal is playing like a grizzled veteran; this is a guy who was on the brink of demotion in early October. He's dominant at both ends of the ice and I find myself more nervous when Staal is on the ice than any other Pittsburgh player. Roberts is being Roberts, irritating and borderline... everything you expect him to be. Crosby was shut down completely tonight, though he played well, and Malkin has been invisible the entire series.

Now, to focus on some strong play which lead to the Ottawa victory:

Mike Comrie. His creativity lead to the game-winning goal, but he's been buzzing all series and this has come to be expected. He has been a fantastic fit with Fisher and Schaefer, and this has become an energy line that, with Comrie's offensive creativity, can be a much more dependable and consistent scoring line than having Neil as the winger. Now, these guys haven't been filling the net like superstars, but they fill valuable offensive minutes ably.

Ray Emery. I haven't at all been with his play so far in the series, but he did step up tonight. With the help of his teammates, tonight Emery held the Penguins to a single goal, making the score look like a defensive chess-match when in reality the play was anything but. Throughout long stretches, both teams traded chances and the score could have easily and justifiably been 6-5. He didn't make too many super-human saves, but he did his job and avoided getting in the position where he needed to make the impossible save. The Pens failed to mark a single powerplay goal, and all in all Emery played the way he will need to for the Senators to succeed consistently.

Anton Volchenkov. The amount of penalties were disappointing, and unlike in Phillips' case I don't feel as though any were necessary to prevent scoring chances. Still, he performed fantastically while on the ice (including penalty killing while Phillips was in the box), and managed to shutdown the Malkin-Crosby-Recchi line completely by forcing perimeter play. Oh and he scored the game winning goal or something. Yeah, Mr. "1 goal in the Regular Season" is the reason the Senators have a 3-1 series lead. So this guy is the man, more or less.

Chris Phillips. As with Volchenkov, the penalties were frustrating but the hooking penalty he took early in the second to prevent a Crosby break was a perfect demonstration of a "good penalty", if there can be such a thing. He also made a game-saving move late in the third, lifting Staal's stick to prevent a sure goal.

Joe Corvo. Unpack the boxes, and enjoy your stay in Ottawa over the next three years, because you are not going anywhere. The skating, oh the skating. If he takes target practice over the summer, this man will be unstoppable.

Jason Spezza. Nevermind the Montreal goal from last year... this is the Spezza goal to remember. Why? Because he just shot it. Throw it at the net and see what happens. He's learning. It wasn't a pretty play - it was about as far as you can get from a pretty play. But it sure looks nice on the scoreboard. He's still doing the "stupid" drop passes - and no one's complaining, because they're working. He's being responsible and judging what is appropriate and when. For once, Spezza's play is not dictated by his points. He had a brain fart late in the game, failing to clear the puck, but paid the price for his error by blocking the shot that resulted. He's buying in to playoff hockey, and I could not be happier.

Peter Schaefer. I've been tough on him all season long, feeling he looked disinterested and just going through the motions, but he really stepped is game up in late March and hasn't descended since. He had a game-saving crease clear, had some creative moves in the offensive zone and some decent scoring chances, and just generally played with good energy and speed.

Christoph Schubert. Just consistently fantastic. I haven't liked his borderline hits from the past few games, but he cleaned it up tonight. He's versatile, energetic and, man, that 4th line was buzzing tonight. Another very strong game and a big part of our 100% PK.

Special teams. Thank you for waking up PP, and thank you for staying up, PK.

Oleg Saprykin. Oleeeeeeg, Oleg Oleg Oleg. There is no rush to get Eaves back in the lineup. At all. I want this guy to stick around. He's got energy, drive, some great hands, and turned the 4th line into a significant scoring threat.

Neutral things:

Dany Heatley. At least he looked better tonight. He's still slow as a one-legged turtle sloughing through mud, and his windup slapshot still leaves Pittsburgh with enough time to change lines, rehydrate, and have left over for the Ice Girls to clear Fleury's crease, but at least he's trying. I like that he's trying to be the playmaker, but Heatley's a shooter, he's paid to shoot, so shoot. (And score, please). He played well defensively tonight, did well to clear the zone late in the game, and set up some great chances, but I cannot say I'm at all impressed with his play so far. I can buy that he has an injury, which is unfortunate, but it's no excuse. If the Senators are going to go far, Heatley needs to be January Heatley.

Negative things:

Wade Redden. I was happy to see him back on the 1st PP, and he looked good there. Elsewhere - just not right. Meszaros is the better player in this partnership right now. Yeah, it's that bad. He's an assistant captain and he's playing like December Corvo. But with everyone's complaints... this team wins when he's in the lineup. That's all that we need to care about in regard to Redden right now.

Now, I don't have many negative things to point out. The problem with this game was that Pittsburgh played really well. This is not something Ottawa can really prevent, although we can make their good play meaningless. Which we did tonight. I still don't think it was the best we can see from Pittsburgh, but I do think it was their game so far this series. Pittsburgh controlled the play for long stretches in the game and, I'd say, "won" the second period. This game wasn't about Ottawa dominating and decimating their opposition. It was about Ottawa being confronted with a challenging opponent, with a goaltender playing strong, with hard-hitting, driven, playing-on-the-edge players, and Ottawa being able to come out on top. An 8-0 victory gets us nowhere; a 2-1 victory over a Penguins team playing great hockey - that's a win that matters.

Congrats on the 3-1 lead boys, now close out the series on home ice in front of your loving fans!

Senators 4 Penguins 2


Penguins 4 Senators 3

Senators Goals
Jason Spezza (1) from Daniel Alfredsson (2) and Anton Volchenkov (3)
Daniel Alfredsson (1) from Dany Heatley (1) and Jason Spezza (2)
Chris Kelly (2) from Dean McAmmond (1) and Andrej Meszaros (1)

I would love to do a big write up but unfortunately I was out of town for the weekend and the game has blended with others. I guess it's just one I would like to forget. Suffice it to say showing up for one period will never cut it.

Alfredsson was everything we need and expect him to be. And then some.
Comrie is proving his worth. Many Senators fans insisted on waiting until the playoffs to assess the Kaigorodov trade. Well, here we are.

Out of town for the Weekend

But I will update on this weekend's Senators games tonight.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Adami - Ottawa Fans "Classless" for Booing Crosby

From the front page of this morning's Ottawa Citizen, comes a gem of an article from sports"writer" Hugh Adami, chastising Senators fans for booing Sidney Crosby, the opposing team's best player, in the opening game of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Sid, the poor kid, really got it the other night at Scotiabank Place, where boo-birds were perched on every seat of the building, ready to squawk whenever he had the puck.
I have difficultly seeing Sidney Crosby described as a poor kid in any sense, not in his wealth nor in the maturity he shows off the ice, nor the experience-beyond-his-years he shows on the ice, nor the surliness he shows between whistles. While I personally wouldn't boo Crosby, I fully respect the right of others to do so. Crosby is a fantastic player who will serve Canada well in years to come, and who I have no problem admiring and supporting when he's playing any team but my own. But when we're at Scotiabank Place during the playoffs, we're not hockey fans. We're not Canadian hockey fans. We're not Sidney Crosby fans. We're Senators Fans. As such, we'll do everything within our power to support our team, either through cheering them on or denigrating the opposition.
Even when Crosby scored late in the third period, with victory already well out of sight for Pittsburgh, you might have thought that some Senators fans would have had the decency to cheer his first NHL playoff goal.

Funny, how Adami makes no request for Senators fans to ravenously applaud Jordan Staal's first playoff goal. Or perhaps that would be insulting to our team since the game was still within reach for Pittsburgh at that point. So tell us, Mr. Adami, should we applaud Evgeni Malkin's first playoff goal should it come tomorrow at Scotiabank Place? Would it be appropriate only if the game was out of reach? Or would it never be appropriate, since he's Russian (surely he won't receive the Order of Canada)? Inappropriate, because, star as he may be, he's not on the level with Crosby? Should Pittsburgh fans cheer raucously everytime Dany Heatley or Jason Spezza touches the puck? After all, they'll be proudly serving Canadian hockey for years to come as well. Or perhaps only Patrick Eaves, good American footsoldier that he is? Should Pittsburgh writers be up in arms if Penguins fans fail to celebrate a goal by Daniel Alfredsson, especially - heaven forbid - if the game is out of reach for the Senators? Or does this kind of sickeningly-good sportsmanship only apply in Canada? Or only apply to the Senators? Or only apply when the Citizen just wants to sell papers?

The NHL's top scorer this season, with 120 points, and the second best last season, with 102 points, was booed. And booed again when the goal was announced. The game ended 6-3.
I suppose Mr. Adami should inform Toronto Maple Leafs fans that the booing of top scorers such as Daniel Alfredsson is inappropriate? Or perhaps politely make Atlanta fans aware that Heatley, betrayer of their city he might be, should be cheered every he touches the puck, doubly so if he scores? Or is that ok, because neither player is the second coming of Gretzky? Nevermind the fact that both outscored the Phenom last year (this is called a fact. As opposed to a "fact", such as Mr. Adami claiming that Crosby's 102-point campaign was good for second in the league in 05-06).

Was Gary Roberts, a wrecking machine against the Senators when he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, booed when he had the puck or when he let Anton Volchenkov know that he's a pretty good hitter, too?


Fans were probably still envisioning how great Roberts would have looked in a Senators jersey had general manager John Muckler been able to get him at the trade deadline from his old buddy, ex-Senators coach Jacques Martin, who is still in exile with the Florida Panthers.

No, Mr. Adami was still envisioning Roberts in a Senators jersey. Fans were well aware that, desirable as Roberts may have been to busybody sports writers, Muckler's "old buddy" had absolutely no interest in dealing with his former team, unless it involved a fleecing that would make the Luongo trade look "kind of alright" for Florida in comparison.

It never used to be this way when big Canadian talent visited Ottawa with their teams to play the Senators. Wayne Gretzky was given such a sendoff in April 1999 when he played his last game on Canadian ice at the then-Corel Centre that the Senators forgot about winning the game and the chance of finishing first in the Eastern Conference. They settled for a 2-2 tie, even though Gretzky did remind them at one point during the third period that they should stop the saluting because they had other business to worry about.
If, in twenty years, Crosby has rewritten every record there is to be written, won every award there is to be won, served his country and teams with class and honour, become the greatest hockey player ever by every objective definition, and plays his final Canadian game at the Scotiabank Place, I will applaud him loudly and proudly. I'll save the adulation until then; for this two week stretch in April, he's just an enemy on the opposition team.
But Crosby said yesterday that the loud, hostile crowd at Scotiabank Place didn't bother him at all and certainly didn't affect his game -- although he didn't have much of one before that third-period goal.
Strange, I would expect him to make excuses and say the reason he didn't have a shot on net for the first half of the game was because the fans were getting in the "poor kid's" head. Or he's a professional, and knows how to deal with it, both in tuning it out on the ice, and in responding to it in the media. Mr. Adami, as much as you are trying to baby Crosby, which do you think is more likely?

Crosby will do his job on the ice; Senators fans will do their job off it. This isn't classless, it's playoff hockey.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sens-Pens Unsubstantiable Prediction Results Pt 1

Green = correct
Red = wrong

First goal of the series is scored by Mike Comrie.
First goal of the series is scored by Andrej Meszaros.

Jocelyn Thibault will make one appearance in relief.

Daniel Alfredsson and Mark Recchi will be held goalless.
(so far)

Ottawa's highest scoring defenseman will be Joe Corvo; Sergei Gonchar will fill this role for the Pens.
(so far)

Anton Volchenkov and Josef Melichar will be held without a single point.
Volchenkov had 2 points tonight.

Senators 6 Penguins 3

(is this score getting familiar?)

Senators Goals
Meszaros (1) from Fisher (1) and Schaefer (1)
Kelly (1) from Corvo (1) and Neil (1)
Preissing (1) from Spezza (1) and Corvo (2)
Heatley (1) from Alfredsson (1) and Volchenkov (1)
Neil (1) from Redden (1)
Comrie (1) from Schaefer (1) and Volchenkov (2)

Team1200 3 Stars:
1. Alfredsson
2. Neil
3. Volchenkov

CBC 3 Stars:
1. Emery
2. Alfredsson
3. Staal

My 3 Stars:
1. Alfredsson
2. Corvo
3. Neil

In their tenth playoff, the Senators finally get it right. Among Senators fans there was a general consensus about what the players needed to do to ensure a victory. Come out hard and aggressive, stun the neophyte Penguins with the amped up intensity of a playoff game. Dictate the pace and style of play. Fire anything and everything at a sure-to-be-nervous Fleury. Forecheck like maniacs and play the body like never before. Play a full 60 minutes and never take the foot off the pedal whether the score is 1-0 or 9-0. Now, in a sense these expectations were a pipe dream. How we wished the Senators were capable of playing. After all, through an 82 game season the Senators failed to play a single game where we could say with authority and satisfaction, "they laid it all on the ice". But tonight, the Senators did exactly that. Now, it's only the first game of potentially long series, and the expectation was that the Senators would win. But it's the fashion in which they came to be victorious which indicates good things for the coming weeks. First, let us focus on the positives.

Daniel Alfredsson. He's been known to talk a big game but fail to convincingly deliver in the playoffs. Among optimistic Senators fans, this is simply a matter of taking too much on his shoulders, sinking under the immense weight of his own expectations. There is always a hope that this year, he'll learn to let it all go and just play. Among less forgiving spectators, Alfredsson's just a no-good Euro choke artist. Tonight, he played perhaps his best playoff hockey since the 1998 New Jersey series. He was busting his ass out there, throwing everything possible at the net (ok, throwing everything possible to within a 15 metre radius of the net). He was easily the hardest worker on either team, and his penalty killing work was one of the key reasons one of the league's most potent power plays was held to a mere two goals over nearly 17 minutes with the man advantage. Though he registered just 1 assist, Alfredsson's work ethic shows he's come ready to play and won't accept anything less than complete domination of the Penguins. Whether it happens or not is a different story, but with the captain enthusiastically leading the charge, it's hard not to feel optimistic.

Joe Corvo. He bottomed out in early January and seemed not only a signing bust but a psychological basketcase as well. Since then however, he buckled down immensely to become a solid and dependable defensive player; with added confidence in the past month or so, he's slowly worked the offensive flair back into his game and hasn't been burned in doing so. Corvo is the lone Ottawa player without NHL playoff experience, but seeing him tonight you'd think he was a seasoned vet. Now I'm not claiming he's Lidstrom here, but he looked creative and energetic in the offensive zone, was eager to shoot (something he'd been shying away from during the low points of his season), and was confident and dependable in the defensive zone. Though the powerplay was disappointing tonight, Corvo played a key role in the back-breaking Preissing goal to send the Senators up 3-0. Corvo finished with 2 assists on the night. If Corvo can sustain his play over the last six months, he could be a key contributor to the Senators playoff run, not just the warm body people were predicting mid-season.

Andrej Meszaros. The kid has had an unfortunate season and his confidence seemed irretrieveable up until tonight, but he got the opening goal less than two minutes in. I couldn't have been happier with anyone else scoring it; Meszaros' lit up, and his play the rest of the night reflected his refound confidence. He was solid at both ends of the ice and, bless his soul, finished a team-best +2.

Mike Comrie and the Fisher Line. For a guy who's last playoff appearance was in the first round of the 02-03 playoffs with the Edmonton Oilers, he sure looked like someone who was glad to be back. Playing like a man possessed on a dynamic line with Schaefer and Fisher, he recorded a goal and was hitting everything in sight. He also finished +2. The Schaefer-Fisher-Comrie line had been dominant in the waning days of the regular season, and it's encouraging to see their success has carried over to the playoffs, when their secondary scoring is crucial. They recorded 4 points between them, were a combined +6, and had 8 hits.

Chris Neil. Neil was everything he needed to be. Aggressive, physical and intimidating. That he recorded a sweet breakaway goal and an assist? That's just a bonus.

Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov. Hey guys, you know you already signed your contracts. So, uh, why are you still playing like money's on the line? Oh, because you guys love this team and will sacrifice anything for success? Sweet B-). Our shutdown pair combined for 10 hits, 6 blocked shots, 2 points and were +2 collectively. And spent almost 10 minutes each on the PK. Nothing but love here.

Penalty Kill. 2 goals. In 16:57 of PP time. Almost a full period on the penalty kill against one of the league's most deadly power plays, featuring the Art Ross winner, probably Calder trophy winner, and 2nd highest-scoring defenseman in the league. And then there's Roberts, Staal, Recchi and Whitney. Among others. Need any more be said?

Then we have to get to the negatives. Which I really don't want to dwell on, after a 6-3 victory. So to keep it simple:

Dany Heatley. Not the coming-out party any Sens fan was hoping for. Flubbed a lot of chances, still showed up on the scoresheet, but wasn't the reason we won. Wasn't even noticeable at even strength. A significant improvement is expected Saturday, as secondary scoring cannot drive this team. No, you're expected to drive this team.

Discipline. Sometimes it comes with playing an aggressive and physical game, but with the refs willing to call everything little thing, the Sens need to buckle down. Unless absolutely imperative, no holding, hooking, cheap shots to the back of the head, and keep your Goddamn sticks under control. Those four minuters are killer. And please, please don't shoot the puck into the crowd. Ever.

. It wasn't brutal this game, it just seemed to lack of sense of urgency. 5 on 3s must be capitalised on. While they aren't gimme-goals by any stretch, outside of a penalty shot there is no better offensive opportunity than a 5 on 3. So make use of it, because if Fleury is on his game, the score won't be 2-0 five minutes in. They might be the only chances you get.

I wasn't impressed with the poor sportsmanship shown by the Penguins late in the game. The game was out of reach at that point, and I just don't have respect for trying to drum up energy through goon tactics. I understand that the scrum gets underway, but Talbot's shot to Corvo's head after everything was settling down was completely bush-league. I don't like people throwing garbage at Talbot either, for that matter. Just keep the game physical but clean, it's better for everyone involved that way.

Staal's the real deal. Crosby and Malkin will get more points and accolades, but Staal's the kind of player every team needs. Watching him on the ice you'd think he was a 33 year old seasoned vet. The kid's 18 and only going to get better. I don't wish him success against us in this series but I can see this guy becoming one of my favourite players right quick.

And that's about it. Come out Saturday and do something you've never done before, take a 2-0 lead in a series. Don't get cocky, don't get complacent. Whatever the Senators did to get themselves in the frame of mind to come out like they did tonight, they need to do their best to replicate it. Because you can bet now that Crosby, Malkin, Staal and Fleury have their feet wet, they won't be coming out the same way ever again.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Go Sens Go


Senators secure blueline stability; lock up Phillips

Just a day removed from the resigning of his defense partner Anton Volchenkov, Senators GM John Muckler confirmed the resigning of veteran blueliner Chris Phillips. Though the move was foreseeable, with both sides speaking positively about the status of talks over the past few months, it was believed the sticking point was a No Trade Clause. TSN confirms a NTC is included in the $14 million, 4 year deal. A former #1 draft pick who has spent his entire 9-year NHL career with the Ottawa Senators, Phillips had made his intention to resign well-known.

Part of the Senators leadership core which includes such respected veterans as Daniel Alfredsson and Wade Redden, Phillips is renown as a reliable defenseman, who, in addition to his own dependable performances, seems to stabilise his defensive partners. Last season, Phillips was coupled with Zdeno Chara to form perhaps the most deadly shutdown pair in the league. This year, Phillips failed to miss a beat in the absence of his long-time partner, and has played a significant role in the development and maturation of current partner Anton Volchenkov. With the loss of Chara to Boston via free agency, Phillips has not only stepped up admirably on the back-end, but has filled the (rather large) leadership shoes of Chara, taking on the role of assistant captain. The 06-07 season was a landmark one for Phillips, seeing the stay-at-home defenseman record career highs in goals and points. It was also only the second season in which Phillips played in all 82 Senators games.

The four year deal will ensure Phillips remains with the Senators throughout the prime of his career and likely indicates a desire to retire a Senator, a loyalty the Senators organisation has rewarded in kind.

Sens-Pens Unsubstantiable Predictions

Just some fun little predictions on the eve of the playoffs, so I can look back on my bang-on assumptions in two weeks time and brag about my prescience... or delete the entry and never make further mention of it.

First goal of the series is scored by Mike Comrie.
Last goal of the series is scored by Evgeni Malkin.
Most goals in the series are scored by Jason Spezza and Evgeni Malkin.
Most points in the series are scored by Jason Spezza and Sidney Crosby.
Ray Emery records a better GAA but worse Save % than MA Fleury.
Jocelyn Thibault will make one appearance in relief.
2 games will go to overtime; Mike Fisher and Maxime Talbot will record the game winners.
Daniel Alfredsson and Mark Recchi will be held goalless.
Ottawa's highest scoring defenseman will be Joe Corvo; Sergei Gonchar will fill this role for the Pens.
Anton Volchenkov and Josef Melichar will be held without a single point.
Chris Neil and Gary Roberts will record the most penalty minutes.
The series will go to 6 games.
There will be at least one game with a combined goal total exceeding 9.
There will be at least one game where a goaltender records a shutout.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

3 Senators' Make "Monster" Cut

3 Ottawa Senators were named "Monsters" by hockey analyst Pierre McGuire in season-end TSN special on Monday night. Monsters are players adjudged by McGuire to be "hard charging, abrasive, fearless" - essentially, the "consummate team player". Making the cut from the Ottawa Senators were:

Anton Volchenkov
Leads the league in blocked shots by a substantial margin, and is 12th in league hits. Constantly receives praise as one of Ottawa's hardest working players night in and night out (coincidentally, the other two "monsters" are recurringly receive similar praise). He's renowned around the league for his bone-crushing open-ice hits, but it's his willingness to sacrifice on even the smallest or most inconsequential play that makes him a note-worthy competitor.

Chris Neil
The league leader in hits, Neil is praised for his energy and effort. He's a great agitator and is recognised around the league as being one of the most adept tough guys - not just in his fighting skills, but in his all-around ability. He'll stand up for his teammates at any cost.

Mike Fisher
A "Monster" selection last year as well, Mike Fisher had another notable season. A Selke finalist in 05-06, Mike Fisher shone even more this season, finishing 17th in league hits (despite missing over a month with a knee injury), tying a career high in goals (22), and setting career highs in assists (26) and points (48) (again, despite missing significant time due to injury). Regarded league-wide as an premiere third-line centre, Fisher stepped up admirably into a second-line position, and even shone as a first line centre, albeit for a brief time, when Jason Spezza was injured. He is reputed for his tireless work ethic and leadership.

Anton Volchenkov and Chris Neil are first-time nominees; Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson was selected as a monster last year, as was former Sens beast Zdeno Chara.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Untraditional Playoff Schedule Caters to "Potential" Fans - At What Cost?

Outside of Dora the Explorer's corruptive interference, the NHL playoff schedule has managed to remain rather stable and predictable over the years (7pm, every second night). Granted, with NHL arenas being used for the NBA, regular concerts and other sporting events, it is difficult to schedule an entire seven game series to perfection. This is understandable, so the odd layover between series or back-to-backer if necessary becomes excusable. This season, however, there is hardly a series which fits the "traditional" playoff framework. Take the Ottawa-Pittsburgh series, which features multiple two-night rests, back-to-back weekend games, and start times from 1pm, 3pm, 6pm and 7pm. The afternoon weekend games are understandable, to a point. Yes this series features the best player in the NHL, in his first ever playoff. Yes, this series will be perhaps the most entertaining, aggressive, high-flying matchup of the year. If there's one series you want to showcase to potential fans, this is it. So yes, it is perfectly understandable if a network available in virtually every household in the United States and Canada (NBC) wants to broadcast this series, the NHL will do whatever it takes to make it happen. After all, they'r'e not going to branch out to potential new fans with their Versus coverage. However, is it really worth manipulating the schedule the cater to potential fans, when to everyone else involved - players, fans, broadcasters - 6pm on a Sunday doesn't exactly scream playoff time? According to the schedule, all Senators-Pittsburgh games will be broadcast nationally in both the United States and Canada. Well, if you're trying to get fans in Seattle or Whitehorse to get into the game via Sidney Crosby, is 10am on a Saturday really the best time to do it? This is, after all, the time at which 1pm East Coast games will be viewable in the Pacific Time Zone. Back-to-back games are a headache for players, to be sure, and might not provide the best product on the ice if players are drained after a particularly taxing game the night before (say, a 4-overtime game, which is entirely possible in the playoffs). Or perhaps players with nagging injuries will be forced to sit without the extra recuperation time a day's rest provides. This isn't complaining about the misfortunes of any particular team, but rather the potential problems it causes for a highly entertaining matchup aimed at enlisting new fans.

The Ottawa-Pittsburgh schedule foibles hit closest to home, but there are plenty of problems elsewhere. Take the Calgary-Detroit matchup. As with any team in the Eastern Time Zone but Western Conference, Detroit home games are bound to cause headaches for fans of the West team they match-up with. This can be minimised with 8pm starts or, at worst, 7pm. However, NHL has scheduled a 1pm weekend game, forcing Calgary fans to cheer on their team at 11am. Nothing says beer and pizza like a midmorning hockey game, does it?

Nashville-San Jose, potentially one of the most entertaining series of the entire playoffs, featuring two high-flying offenses with solid defense and four (!) of the league's best goaltenders, isn't getting guaranteed national coverage; Versus pledges to join some of their games "in progress". Unbelievable, that a series featuring the reigning MVP and Art Ross winner, and a team that battled for the President's Trophy and top seed in the West for long stretches in the season, is relegated to "maybe you'll get to watch this" status.

For five out of their possible seven games, the three New York area teams (NYR, NYI and NJ) will be playing on the same night... at the same time. There is no possible explanation or excuse for how ridiculous this scheduling is.

No one expects the NHL to get playoff scheduling exactly right in each and every case. These odd schedules and start times take players and fans out of the playoff state of mind. In what universe is this good for the game?

Senators Resign Volchenkov

Senators GM John Muckler announced today the resigning of stalwart defenseman Anton Volchenkov to a $7.5 million, three-year deal. Set to become a Restricted Free Agent on July 1st, the new contract carries a cap hit of $2.5 million US and runs through the first year of Volchenkov's Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) eligibility. The first two years are for $2.1 and $2.2 million respectively, followed by a jump to $3.2 million in 2009-10. He made $1.5 million in the 2006-07 season. The Senators' first round pick in the 2000 NHL entry draft, Volchenkov is in his 4th year with the club, but only in his second full season. Due to the departure of Zdeno Chara, lost to Boston via free agency, Volchenkov was placed in a key role this season and by all accounts performed well above expectations. Along with an expected resigning of Volchenkov's veteran partner Chris Phillips to a coinciding three-year deal, Muckler has ensured the long-term stability of one of the most powerful shutdown pairs in the league. It also takes a significant load off Muckler's shoulders for this summer, with RFAs Emery, Saprykin, Kelly requiring new contracts, and the 07-08 whereabouts of key UFAs Preissing, Comrie, McAmmond needing to be determined.

With the playoffs less than a week away, and the dominant contract news revolving around Phillips for the past few months, the Volchenkov signing came out of left field from an outsider's perspective. It was certainly something that needed to be done, no question, but Muckler has shown unexpected competence in not only recognising the key role Volchenkov has played this season, but in signing him to such a reasonable contract despite Volchenkov's significant bargaining power (well, as significant as possible for an RFA) brought on by strong play. Leading the league by a considerable margin in blocked shots, sitting just outside the league leaders in hits, setting new assist and point totals, and establishing himself as a premiere shutdown defenseman in the league (not to mention a fan favourite), Muckler did well to lock this valuable player up at a reasonable cost for a reasonable length of time.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Senators 6 Bruins 3

Senators Goals
Comrie (19) from Schaefer (34)
Spezza (33) from Alfredsson (57) and Phillips (18)
Heatley (50) from Alfredsson (58) and Meszaros (28)
Spezza (34) from Schubert (17) and Heatley (54)
Alfredsson (29) from Redden (29) and Heatley (55)
Eaves (14) from Neil (16) and Corvo (29)

Emery 3 goals on 32 shots.
1 for 4 on the PP.
5 for 6 on the PK.

3 stars from Team1200
1. Heatley
2. Alfredsson
3. Spezza
Hardest working Senator: Schubert (HM to Corvo and Eaves)

3 stars from Me
1. Spezza
2. Alfredsson
3. Heatley
Hardest working: Volchenkov

These are my three stars for tonight's game, but I'd like to extend it a bit and reflect on how they performed throughout the season, and what their recent performances indicate as we head into the playoffs.

1. Jason Spezza
It wasn't just that Spezza scored two goals to increase his goal total to 34, good for 22nd in the league and furthering his career high by 12 goals, and besting last year's goal total by a remarkable 15. It was the way Spezza got these two goals, the first of which tied the game and the second of which cemented the Senators' lead. As he seems to be doing a lot lately, Spezza was in the shooting lanes, paying the price to get some goals. That Spezza has decided to do this in time for the playoffs cannot be understressed; for a team that has been constantly criticised for remaining a perimeter team in the playoffs, that Spezza has taken it upon himself to get "playoff" style goals is very good news. He's still the great playmaker he has proven himself to be, but that he has now proven himself to be a deadly scoring threat, he'll keep defenders honest in the playoffs. It's no longer all about Heater (although you wouldn't know it with the way Alfie and Spezza had been trying to feed him for 50). Spezza was this team's MVP through the difficult first half of the season. Even as the team struggled, he was accountable and took responsiblity for his actions; not only by accepting his errors (namely turnovers) publicly, but by buckling down and phasing them out of game. Spezza found himself in the top 3 in league scoring, and was the Senators' most consistent performer night in and night out. He has displayed a commitment to improvement, and he will only get better as his career winds on. Spezza is a determined player - don't be surprised if he becomes Mr. Clutch come Wednesday. Spezza had exactly the kind of game tonight you would hope for leading into the playoffs. Just as he had Thursday against Pittsburgh, just as he had Tuesday against New Jersey. He's ready to step up.

2. Daniel Alfredsson
Alfie was just Alfie tonight, and it paid off. 1 goal and 2 assists, leaving him with 87 points. While his offensive totals were a far cry from his top-5 performance last year (103 points), it does leave him with his second most-productive season to date. All that after a dreadful slump to start the season, nagging injuries throughout, and only a handful of games played alongside Spezza and Heatley. Attempting to predict his playoff performance is far too difficult, but he's been playing well the last few months and we can only hope that Spezza and Heatley step up to take the burden of offense off Alfie's shoulders; he'll be the better for it. It is difficult to predict beforehand whether a series against media darlings the Pittsburgh Penguins will have the Senators out of the limelight while the media focuses on Sid the Kid, or if the media scrutiny will be even more intense than during the Leafs-Sens matchups of years past. Alfie's got to know how to handle the media by now; he just needs to say the same old generic line, not worry about media and fan expectations and just be himself on the ice, and he'll be fine.

3. Dany Heatley
Sure last season was a great offensive season, and Heatley rebounded extremely well after questions about his health and emotional stability following a very difficult couple of years, but it wasn't until 2007 that Heatley firmly recemented his position as a supreme player in this league. Carrying this team on his back through the Spezza injury, Heatley was NHL player of the month through January, a no-brainer All-Star selection, and quite obviously the Senators' MVP throughout the second half. He finds himself just 2 goals from the Rocket Richard lead, in 4th place in NHL scoring, and a legitimate candidate for the Hart trophy (though he won't win it, I would not at all be surprised to find him 6th or 7th in voting). He set a new career high in assists (55) and points (105), and has the first back-to-back 50 goals seasons in 6 years (a feat accomplished by Pavel Bure, the Russian Rocket himself ). He has the most goals of any NHL player in the last 2 years, with an even 100. He has 208 points in just two years as a Senator. There can be no complaints on the offensive side of things. But he has shored up his game in the last few months; he's no longer a one-dimensional triggerman. He's deadly at ES, PP or PK. You want him on the ice with a minute left whether you're down or up a goal. While he still doesn't bring 100% effort night in and night out, he's an awful lot closer than he was last year. While his 05-06 playoff performance was labelled disappointing by some, I personally give Heatley a mulligan on his first playoff. This year he gets no such free ride; he is the crux of the Senators offense and will be expected to perform as such.

Good signs: aggressive offense with a killer instinct. A couple weeks ago, the Senators might have sat on the 4-2 lead, saying (to quote Chris Kelly), "we've got enough goals". Fortunately, the Senators kept pressing hard and got some revenge against a team that's given them serious trouble this season. For any other team, beating Boston 6-3 would not be much of an accomplishment. For the Senators, winning a must-win game against a team and goaltender that's given them a tough time this season... it's a good win.

Bad signs: We might well have been playing without defensemen during the first period, this team was all over the place. Emery did not have a good start. They need to shake this defensive performance off and come out hard, aggressive but smart on Wednesday against Pittsburgh.