Monday, June 11, 2007

06-07 Recap Continued: Round One

Game 1 - Senators 6, Penguins 3

Sometimes, it's about the little things. If Senators needed any indication that this year would be different, that captain Daniel Alfredsson had reignited the internal flame necessary to lead his team to glory, and that for once his teammates were ready to follow his lead, Senators fans need not look further than the moments before the start of game one against Pittsburgh. Inside a raucous Scotiabank Place, flanked by his stalwart linemates and staring down a jittery Penguins starting line (see: Jordan Staal), steely-eyed Alfredsson stood like a warrior awaiting battle. If the captain's dauntless determination wasn't enough to convince skeptics, perhaps the game itself might have been. The Senators came out flying; not even two minutes into the game, the Senators found themselves up 1-0 on a rebound goal by Andrej Meszaros, the first goal of the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs. Five minutes later, Chris Kelly added to the Senators lead with his first career playoff goal. Sitting on a 3-1 lead, the Senators opened the third period with a powerplay goal by Dany Heatley, the fastest to start a period in Senators playoff history, at just nine seconds. The final score would read 6-3; in all, 6 different Senators would mark their first goal of the post-season, 14 different Senators would factor on the scoresheet, and three separate players would enjoy a multipoint game. Though Alfredsson recorded a sole assist in the blowout, there was no doubt that the captain was the best player on the ice that night. He registered 8 shots on net, had an additional 5 go wide, and was a frightening offensive threat every time he set foot on the ice. Though he only registered two hits, he was also a punishing forechecker and aggressive in his own end, all but pulling his team by the bootstraps to show them how it's done. Without a doubt, it was not only Alfredsson's greatest performance since the 97-98 NJ series - it was better. At the time, it was hard not to be impressed with the performance. In their tenth playoff, the Senators finally got 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 the Senators did follow the gameplan to a tee, and thoroughly earned their 1-0 series lead.

Unfortunately, the second game did not follow the same script. There were several contribution factors; the three day layoff between games, the atypical afternoon start time, or the fact that the Penguins brushed all first-game jitters out of the way and remember how to be a hockey team.

Game 2 - Senators 3, Penguins 4

Despite the Senators best efforts to mount a 2-0 lead in a series for the first time in franchise history, the Penguins refused to go down without a fight. It could be said the Senators did enough to win, firing 37 shots at Fleury, and a total of 77 shots in the general direction of the Pens net with blocked and missed shots factored in. However, a stellar rebound performance for Fleury and some sharp penalty killing (or poor play with the man advantage from the Senators, it could be argued), left the match tied at two heading into the third.

While Chris Kelly's second goal in as many games seemed to have cemented the lead early in the final frame, the Penguins mounted an impressive comeback on the backs of rookie sensation Jordan Staal and sophomore king Sidney Crosby, with each of the pair scoring a goal just minutes apart as the game wore down. Though the Pens left the Senators with nearly half a period to tie the game, Fleury adamantly refused to let any such comeback occur, stopping a point-blank Fisher shot and a flurry of chances around the net in the final minute of play.

Yes, the Senators played well enough to win, but Fleury, Crosby, Staal and Roberts played better. With the victory, the Penguins stole a game on the road, and in turn robbed the Senators of their hard earned home ice advantage. With the series tied at one heading into Pittsburgh, the Senators found themselves in a precarious position; well as they had played in the opening two games of the series, the Penguins surely had the upper hand, the momentum having swung in their favour with the latest victory, and yet to play a game on their home ice. Fortunately for the Senators, it was the last time the Penguins would seem any particular sort of threat in the series.

Game 3 - Senators 3, Penguins 2

Though the Senators won the third game of the series, they also suffered a loss in the Sunday evening game in Pittsburgh. Making a play behind the net, fourth line winger Patrick Eaves was crushed by agitator Colby Armstrong in a devastating, but thoroughly clean, hit. Seeing his teammate lie lifeless on the ice, an peculiar hero in Dean McAmmond rose to stand up for Eaves by taking on Penguins winger Maxime Talbot. It would be the second and final fight of the Senators' playoff run (with Mike Comrie having battled Armstrong in the previous game), but it was as meaningful as any scrap could be.

If any light could be found in the loss of Eaves to a suspected concussion, it was that, as Neil explained later in the year, the team found a rallying point and resolved to win the game at any cost. After having scored a goal early in the game, McAmmond assisted on an Alfredsson marker late in the second, giving the veteran centre the first Gordie Howe hat-trick of the season for the Senators, with a goal, assist and fight.

As remarkable as McAmmond's game was, if anybody was more impressive in game 3, it was captain Daniel Alfredsson. Effortlessly marking his second and third goals of the post-season, and continuing his intensity in all three zones of the ice as well as continuing to exhibit his physical presence, it could very well be argued that the two veterans single-handedly lead the Senators to victory over a determined if inexperienced Penguins club. On the backs of #11 and #37, the Senators regained home-ice advantage and took a 2-1 lead in the series.

Game 4 - Senators 2, Penguins 1

Looking back on the series as a whole, it can be said with some certainty that game 4 was the game which broke the Penguins back, as it were. Not just because it gave the Senators a 3-1 strangehold on the series or because it meant Pittsburgh had lost both of its "must win" home games, although those were sastifying reasons in and of themselves. Instead, it was the fact that the Penguins played fantastic hockey, and still lost. The Penguins played, very likely, as well as they could possibly play, and still fell to the Senators.

No doubt they were the victims of some poor bounces, especially a fluky Spezza goal early in the game which came as the result of an intended pass which bounced off Jordan Staal's stick and fluttered into the net (no doubt Staal and Fleury had nightmares for weeks wishing Chris Neil's stick had touched the airborne puck). Staal got his revenge, scoring the tying goal midway through the game. It would be last time they could foil Emery, however, and a goal from an unlikely source in Anton Volchenkov (as a result of a highlight-reel pass from Mike Comrie) gave the Senators a lead which they never surrendered.

It was likely the sole game of the playoffs in which Emery "stole" a game, with the aid of his razor-sharp penalty killers. These penalty killers included Christoph Schubert who slotted back to the blueline each time Phillips or Volchenkov took a penalty, which was five times combined, and performed as though he was a #1 blueline and not the fourth-line winger Murray had made Schubert this season.

The Penguins played disciplined, patient and measured hockey, still managed 30 hits and fired 53 pucks toward the Senators net, but managed just one goal and a heartbreaking loss. The Senators would return to Scotiabank Place with a chance to advance to the second round in front of their hometown crowd just five games into the series.