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.