Friday, June 8, 2007

Recap: The Regular Season Part II

With the Senators failing to bite at the more costly bait at the trade deadline, they emerged much the same team they had been since the Comrie trade. Unfortunately, those ethics established roughly around that time (commitment to team defense, simple plays, acquiring results through effort rather than talent and a vicious killer instinct) seemed to evaporate as the most important part of the regular season loomed. Flush in the race for fourth place and home ice advantage, the Senators teetered on the edge of returning to early November form, blowing third period leads left and right to the likes of Atlanta, Toronto, and in a particularly stunning case, Patrick Lalime and the Chicago Blackhawks.

A 4-1 second period lead against potential playoff opponent Pittsburgh was quickly turned into a 5-4 shootout loss. The only bright spot during a particularly confounding week was a 5-1 thrashing of the rival Toronto Maple Leafs, where role players Mike Fisher and Dean McAmmond offered two-goal performances. Cited for lacking a killer instinct,the core of the team was being questioned as the post-season neared, as was their ability to make any noticeable dent when the playoffs did arrive. If they couldn't beat the floundering Blackhawks, how could they possibly challenge the Buffalo Sabres in the post-season?

With a lengthy road trip looming, it took a come-from-behind win over the New York Rangers in mid-March before any semblance of a dominant team returned. The team lost once again in the shootout to the seemingly impenetrable Penguins, but tight victories over the Philadelphia Flyers and St. Louis Blues (aided by the referees and video goal judges in this one as much as their own play) gave the team confidence.

The fourth line guided them through a slaughtering of Florida teams, registering 5 goals and 11 points as the Senators outscored the Panthers and Lightning 11-4. Senators sniper Dany Heatley also returned to form, making his quest for 50 goals feasible with 3 goals during the two game stretch, bringing him to 45 with 6 games left to play.

In routine fashion, the Senators lost a close game to all-star (err, third-string) netminder Joey McDonald and the Boston Bruins, before demolishing two teams in the thick of a playoff push, the Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders. The team was buoyed by the Mike Fisher line during the three game home stretch, who registered 6 goals and 15 points as the Senators outscored the three opponents 12-7. Heatley continued his 50 goal quest in humorous fashion, registering a goal each of the games, but with two of them floating into yawning nets.

As April dawned, the Senators were guaranteed a fourth or fifth seed, with their exact position and exact opponent (guaranteed to be either Pittsburgh or New Jersey) the only things left to be determined by the three remaining games, two of which would be against the very teams they would meet in the post-season. An April 3rd game against the New Jersey Devils was particularly of note as it came just one day after the firing of Devils' head coach Claude Julien; despite the Senators best efforts in forcing the tight game to shootout, the Devils did their new coach Lou Lamoriello proud in besting Ottawa.

The Devils win, and Penguins loss on the same night to the Buffalo Sabres, ensured that Pittsburgh and Ottawa would meet for the first time in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Fitting then, that the Senators next game and final home game of the season would be against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Tempers flared early, as a Colby Armstrong run on Emery resulted in an intense scrum in the Ottawa zone, resulting in a slew of penalties including misconducts to Anton Volchenkov and Ryan Whitney. Things didn't cool down from there, when recent goal-scorer Jason Spezza took offense to a charge from Jarko Ruutu midway through the first period, and decked him cold with an elbow after the two exchanged words. The resulting five-minute major decimated the Senators slim 1-0 victory, as the Pens scored two consecutive power play goals to wrest control of the game. Heatley responded with a power play goal of his own early in the second period, his 49th of the season, and it looked like it might be enough to force the game to overtime. Instead, a slurry of errors in the Senators defensive zone lead to a Maxime Talbot goal with just 10 seconds left in the game. Understandably, there would be no comeback. The loss left the Senators with just one game to secure the fourth seed and home ice advantage, two nights later against Boston.

While there had been talk about getting Gerber in for one last game before the playoffs started, and letting injured stars like Heatley and Redden take a rest, the loss to Pittsburgh made any such rest impossible. In a must-win game, the Senators found themselves down 1-0 just a minute and a half into the opening frame, on a brutal Marco Sturm goal. An equally brutal Mike Comrie goal evened the game, only to have Bruins rookie Petr Kalus return the lead to his team less than three minutes later. The Senators big line would have enough of it; they scored three consecutive goals, two being deflections by Jason Spezza, and one a Dany Heatley blast which deflected off Bruins blueliner Aaron Ward and past netminder Thomas.

It was Heatley's 50th goal of the season, his second such milestone in two consecutive years. Remarkably, it was the second season in a row where Heatley left the 50th until the very last game, as he had notched his 50th against the New York Rangers in game 82 last season. The goal would place him firmly in second in the Maurice Richard Trophy race, just two goals behind Vincent Lecavalier, the only other scorer to mark more than 50 goals during the 06-07 campaign. Heatley also finished 4th in NHL point scoring.

The Senators big line of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson ended the season with a bang, very much a precursor to the strong playoffs they would end up having. In the final game of the season, the trio collected 4 goals of the Senators 6 goals, and 8 points in all. The Senators leading scorers ended with 50 goals and 105 points (a franchise record), 34 goals and 87 points (a career goal-scoring high for Spezza), and 29 goals and 87 points for Alfredsson. All three of the Senators big guns finished in the top 20 in scoring, for the second consecutive year, despite an early slump and Alfredsson and Spezza missing significant time due to injury.

Several other Senators had record years, with Chris Phillips, Christoph Schubert, Chris Kelly registering career highs in goals and points, and Mike Fisher and Antoine Vermette setting new points plateaus.

At the end of the 2006-07 regular season, the Senators found themselves with 105 points, good for 2nd in the Northeast Division, 3rd in the Eastern Conference based on points, 4th in the Eastern Conference based on seeding, and 9th in the NHL. They would be facing Sidney Crosby, Gary Roberts and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.