Sunday, May 6, 2007

Senators 3 Devils 2

Senators Goals
Vermette (2) from Preissing (4)
Spezza (5) from Alfredsson (5) and Heatley (8)
Alfredsson (6) from Spezza (7) and Heatley (9)

1 for 2 on the PP
2 for 2 on the PK

Emery makes 29 saves on 31 shots

CBC 3 stars:
1. Alfredsson
2. Spezza
3. Emery

Attending Media 3 Stars:
1. Alfredsson
2. Spezza
3. Heatley

My 3 Stars:
1. Alfredsson
2. Emery
3. Spezza
Very honourable mention to Scott Gomez.

And for the second series in a row, the Senators close it out in 5. For the fourth series in a row, the Senators rest after only 5 games. But unlike the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals of last season against Buffalo, the Senators celebrated a much more favourable conclusion against the New Jersey Devils. Winning on the road for the fourth time this post-season (the most of any team), the Senators upset the second seed in the East, their second series victory against the three-time Cup champions in three attempts. Though the Senators failed to show much of anything for much of the first period, let alone the "desperation" Mike Comrie claimed they would play with, Ray Emery kept them alive until they found some life late in the period. Though he let in a second-effort goal by Scott Gomez nearly 7 minutes into the game, the scoreline could have easily been 2- or 3-0 Devils were it not for a solid performance by Emery. Though he was helped by the post on a Parise rush, he made a highlight save on Patrick Elias on a sharp passing play by the Gomez line, preventing a goal which could very well have ensured this series went to 6. Fortunately, the Senators found their feet at the end of the period and carried the momentum into the intermission. Accordingly, the Senators came out strong in the middle frame and by any objective measure dominated the game for the next 20 minutes. Though they were outshot 11-3 in the first and down by 1-0, they turned the tide with 19 shots in the second, registering 3 goals.

The first came as the result of a frighteningly strong shift from centre Antoine Vermette, who kept the puck in play by a hairline at the blueline only to weave it back into play. The puck found it's way to Preissing who had advanced with one of his trademark pinches. Preissing took a sharp angle shot at Brodeur (cementing what might be another Preissing trademark), by which time Vermette had rushed to the front of the net to deflect it in. Though Vermette has had a difficult season offensively despite the best of efforts, he somehow manages to put the pieces together when it matters most - both of his goals this post-season have come in elimination games against the Pens and Devils. Frequently chastised for his lack of offensive production, Vermette silenced critics with another big game performance. Preissing, as equally unsung as Vermette, used his assist this game to propel himself into the backend scoring lead for the Senators. Finishing with 6 points so far this post-season (a point ahead of equally impressive Corvo and Redden), Preissing illustrates the value of smart positional play at both ends of the rink. It was the second pinch by Preissing in three games that lead to the game-changing goal.

The following goal came on a powerplay, when Jay Pandolfo of all people was nabbed for goaltender interference. Spezza sniped a shot - guess where - high glove side on Brodeur for the go-ahead goal. Assisted by Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley, the goal was yet another indicator of the strength of the Senators' powerplay (best in the playoffs) and the unmatched dominance of the Pizza line (3 of the top 5 scorers in the playoffs, including Heatley at #1. The other 2 have since been eliminated). It was Spezza's 5th of the playoffs, meaning he's scoring at a remarkable 0.5 goal/game pace, not a bad feat for the playmaker of the line and someone who just a season ago only recorded 19 goals.

The final Senators goal of the night, and what would end up the game winner, was a perfect Spezza feed which found Alfredsson alone in the zone with only one defender back. Alfie tossed it through Brodeur's pads without incident. It was his 6th of the playoffs, placing him 4th in the goalscorer's race, and Gionta and Parise ahead of him have since been eliminated. Words cannot express how truly dominant Alfredsson was through this game and series, in all facets of the game. By the end of the night, Alfredsson had been on the ice for 12 of all 15 Senators goals in the Devils series. Ottawa's best scorer, forechecker, penalty killer, and the captain to boot. With his performance in the past two rounds Alfredsson has vaulted himself into a leading position as a potential Conn Smythe candidate. He's been hitting everything that moves, forechecking like a maniac, averaging the most icetime out of any Senators forward, and getting results for all his hard work. Alfredsson has never played this well - in the playoffs, regular season, internationally - this is the best Alfie has ever been.

Heatley registered 2 assists tonight, and though he didn't have the impact last night of his two linemates, he was the Senators' leading scorer with 10 points in the Jersey series. He hasn't failed to register a point since game 4 of the Pittsburgh series; it was the ONLY game of the entire playoffs he failed to factor in on the scoresheet. Thanks to the layoff between series which helped Heatley to rest his ankle, injured late in the season, he came back rejuvenated in the Jersey series and played like the Heatley we all expected. Never has a Senators' top line been so thoroughly dominant and driven. Never has a Senators' top line so steadfastly refused to back down or play nice. Spezza, Alfredsson and Heatley's performances in the Jersey series were a sight to behold, truly.

All 6 Senators defensemen performed to their capabilities in the second round, including Redden and Meszaros. They proved yet again that they are, as a 6-man unit, the strongest group of defensemen in the league.

Emery had a solid game, particularly early and late in the game. He had two game-saving stops against Elias at both junctures of the night, first to keep the Senators in the game, then to protect the Senators' lead. He was not spectacular at any point this post-season, but he hasn't needed to be. And still, he has 8 wins and 2 shutouts. He showed great maturity and accountability in admitting he regretted being a distraction to the team with the car incident on Friday; his performance on the ice showed yet again that none of the sideshow matters when the game is on. He's probably the worst goaltender left in the playoffs, I won't disagree. But he's probably the most competitive and driven. He outbattled and beat the best goaltender in the world in 5 games. Here's to the next round.

Though Ottawa's depth had some trouble scoring in this series (as opposed to the Penguins series when they factored offensively in every game), it is important not to let the scoresheet dictate their impact on the game. The strong forecheck and physicality of all 4 lines was essential in wearing down the Devils and keeping the Devils' stars at bay, particularly with players like Fisher, Neil, Comrie and Schubert. The smart, instinctual penalty killing of role players like Kelly, Vermette, McAmmond and Schaefer was key in shutting down the Devils' best chance at offensive success. strong boardwork and cycling of guys like Schaefer and Fisher played a key part in maintaining possession, frustrating the opposition, dictating the pace and style, and forcing the Devils to play our game. The energy and enthusiasm of guys like Saprykin, Vermette and Comrie was important in inspiring our players and keeping the intensity level high. The versatility of players like Schubert or McAmmond to drop back to defense or move up a line as a defensive presence was a key part of holding leads in 5 very close games. Every single player on this team had an important role that cannot be overlooked or brushed aside. This is a team game, and the Ottawa Senators are a team, and any future success they will have will be due to all 20 players contributing just like they did against Pittsburgh and New Jersey.

There were so many encouraging things to be found in this round. The first is just fun stats-wise - three of the Senators four victories were by one goal margins. For a team that lost in the second round last year, all four losses by one goal margins, this is encouraging.

Congratulations to Emery, Heatley and Spezza, their first visits to the ECF as key contributors. Congratulations to Alfie, Redden, Phillips and Fisher for exacting revenge on the NJD, who dashed the hard work of our boys in getting to their first ever ECF four years ago. With that demon slayed, here's hoping for a better result this time around.
Congratulations to Bryan Murray for making it to the Conference Finals for the first time as a coach. There's a first for everything - let's hope it's not your last achievement this year.
Congratulations to the entire Senators team and organisation for making it this far. The players, the coaching staff, management. It's been a difficult year and even at our most optimistic points an ECF berth was looked upon positively as a reasonable goal. Many people said, if they made it this far they'd be happy. Others said if they made it this far while laying everything on the ice, they'd be happy. At the worst points of the season, the hopes became "if we can make the playoffs, I'll be happy". "If we can win another game, I'll be happy". A few months later, we were challenging for the NE Division title, only a handful of points behind a Buffalo team we were once 30 points and 12 teams behind. We've come along way. Muckler made some difficult decisions, lost some important players, brought in some questionable ones, but still he stuck by his decisions. And here we are, months later. Heatley. Comrie. Preissing. Corvo. McAmmond. One of the best backups in the league (err, ok this one still kind of stings). Capable and experienced fill-ins/injury call-ups. He stood by Murray, he stood by Alfie. And here we are. No matter what happens in the ECF against the Sabres... it's been a good year.