Friday, June 8, 2007

Recap: The Regular Season Part I

The Ottawa Senators' game 5 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, and in turn the loss of the Stanley Cup Final series, leaves an entire summer for analysis, recapitulation, and the opportunity to wallow in "what ifs". Certainly, as the Senators reflect upon a season which began with them in the cellar of the Eastern Conference and ended with them Champions of it, heads should not be expected to roll, but it is difficult to say that finding oneself just three wins from hoisting the Stanley Cup is no less heartbreaking than not getting the opportunity to challenge at all. Though, as Jean-Sebastian Giguere and his fellow Ducks remaining from their Cinderella run in 2003 will attest, the littlest win is awfully hard to come by the deeper a team treads.

At the end of it all, the Senators should have no shame in their performance this year, neither during the regular season nor the playoffs. Yes, they were ousted from the Finals more quickly than any team since the 2001-02 NHL season, and they lost the final game in convincing fashion, a 6-2 scoreline which left little doubt as to the superior team. As much as the Senators might have wanted it, as hard as they may have worked to achieve their goal, the Ducks were simply a better team. Giguere outperformed Emery; Neidermayer, Pronger and company bested Phillips, Volchenkov and the rest of the Senators defense corps; players like McDonald and Getzlaf outscored the likes of Heatley and Spezza while defensive mights such as Pahlsson and Rob Neidermayer outdueled Alfredsson and Fisher. There is no shame, no regret, no self-pity. The better team won.

After the utterly heartbreaking and equally disappointing second round loss to the Buffalo Sabres in the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs, Senators general manager John Muckler set out to assemble a team that could beat the Sabres, a team that seemed built for the new NHL, an assumption only proved true by the 2007 regular season. Muckler assembled a team that could beat every devil they knew, be it Pittsburgh or New Jersey or Buffalo or any other decent team the East could muster. Without a doubt, Muckler accomplished his goal of crafting an Eastern team to be reckoned by its peers.

The Senators swapped slow, lumbering defenseman like Zdeno Chara (lost to Boston via free agency) for smaller, more positionally sound and offensively-abled blueliners like Joe Corvo (acquired via free agency from Los Angeles) and Tom Preissing (acquired from San Jose as a result of the Martin Havlat trade). They avoided potential dressing room issues and fan uproar by neglecting to resign Dominik Hasek, instead bringing in regular season and Olympic showstopper Martin Gerber from Carolina, fresh off a Stanley Cup victory. In what was seemingly a minor deal, veteran centre Dean McAmmond was signed as a free agent.

Though it was the first season in which the Senators made any noticeable splash at all on the free agent market (outside of the 2004 signing of Hasek), it was the July 4th trade of flashy winger Martin Havlat which brought the Senators into the spotlight. Cited as a salary cap move, and with Havlat only interested in signing a one-year contract, Muckler had reportedly been shopping Havlat for quite some time, attempting to package him for Vesa Toskala or, in what would have been one of the most significant trades in NHL history, Roberto Luongo from Florida. When contract negotiations between San Jose and Havlat fell through, the budding star was shipped to Chicago in a three-way trade along with veteran centreman Bryan Smolinski (another cap consideration) in exchange for Tom Preissing and centre prospect Josh Hennessy from San Jose, and a second round pick in 2008 and defense prospect Michal Barinka from Chicago. With the departure of Havlat, Muckler effectively put the Senators future in the hands of Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza.

Missing three crucial elements from their dynamic start to the 2005-06 season in Hasek, Chara and Havlat, the team struggled out of the gate in the 06-07 campaign. The Senators grappled with a lack of confidence, identity and cohesion. In an odd twist of fate, the very factors which accounted for their poor start resurfaced during the poorer stretches of play during the Stanley Cup final, particularly the final game. Rather than playing as a team and being confident and disciplined enough to stick with a gameplan, the Senators reverted to individualistic tendencies, with the superstars attempting to carry the team on their talent to no avail. They were all but lost in their own end, and on the rare occasions when they managed to establish some sort of consistency on the attack, their goaltender was unable to assist them in maintaining a lead or even maintaining pressure and momentum.

The truly poor start was not aided by an early slump from the captain Daniel Alfredsson, who recorded just a single goal in his first month of play - his lone goal being notched on first night of the season, into an empty net no less. Jason Spezza performed as though it was a skills competition, which his no-look passes landing on the sticks of the opposing players more often than not, and on some occasions resulting directly in opportunties and goals on the more unfortunate occasions. Spezza stepped onto the ice to a chorus of boos; even when recording points, the announcement over the loudspeaker at Scotiabank Place was not met with much adulation. At first it was more of an oddity - how could this team, previously so well-reputed during the regular season, be playing like, dare I say it, the playoff Senators in October?

Eventually the quizzical musings turned to venomous attacks. Alfredsson, Redden, Muckler, Murray. Each and every one of them was all but shipped out of town by a ravenous media desperate for a story when apparently there wasn't much else going on in the NHL - only a record-tying streak by the Buffalo Sabres and the collapse and effective dismantling of one of the most legendary clubs in hockey, the Philadelphia Flyers. Much like previous disappointing periods in Senators history, the team leaders stood up to the critics, and answered for their faults. Spezza took full accountability for his missteps. Fisher, Phillips, Alfredsson and Redden answered their critics graciously and pledged to improve, but the results failed to materialise on the ice.

Things didn't get much better when, after a resurgent week with three consecutive blowout victories against NJ and Toronto, it seemed the Senators might be back on track. Instead the team embarked on an extended early November road trip and proceeded to soil the proverbial bed. It didn't help that backup goaltender Ray Emery, at this point perhaps the only shining light in the Senators lineup, injured his glove hand goofing around in practice and would not be available to the Senators for a number of games. A 3-0 first period against Washington dissolved into a 4-3 overtime loss. A 4-2 lead late in the second period evaporates as Atlanta takes the game 5-4. A November 10th 6-3 win over the struggling Pittsburgh Penguins was as satisfying a victory as the team could manage. After an embarrasing 6-3 loss at home to the Montreal Canadiens, the media had all but established that the final straw had been pulled.

A two-game stretch against the class of the league and the Senators most fierce rival, the Buffalo Sabres, was just two days away. With a loss in either of these games, it was rumoured that somebody would be on the line. Whether it was Murray, Muckler, Mlakar or the players themselves who would be sacrificed, only time would tell. And with the future of the organisation on the line, the Ottawa Senators finally stepped up in the November 15th game versus the Sabres. The return of Emery to the lineup (and the beginning of his starting goaltender tenure) didn't hurt matters either.

Things didn't start off easy. At HSBC, the Sabres' co-captain Daniel Briere recorded the first goal. The Senators had two goals waived off, and another (the eventual game winner) was scrutinizingly reviewed for a potential high stick. In what was surely the most tense game in quite some time for the team, when Chris Phillips' long pass from his own end banked off the boards and into the empty net at the other end of the arena in the final minute of play to give the Senators a two goal lead, the Senators understandably celebrated as though they had won the Stanley Cup and not a seemingly meaningless regular season game to the outside observer. Senators owner Eugene Melnyk called a press conference the following day to issue a vote of confidence to his team and organisation, assuring the media that no one would be moved (had the Senators lost, one can only imagine if the "vote of confidence" would have been the kiss of death such announcements tend to be). A few days later, the renewed Senators again overcame a one goal deficit against the Sabres to take a 4-1 lead, this victory capitulated by a Phillips goal perhaps as equally memorable as the one from three nights previous; fresh out of the penalty box, Phillips received a stretch pass from Heatley to break into the Buffalo zone all alone, deke out Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller and snap the puck into the net, short-side.

From their the Senators enjoyed a reasonably successful stretch before encountering injuries to key players, culminating in a short stretch of games where, in the absence of Alfredsson (hip) and Redden (shoulder), Phillips wore the "C" while Fisher and Heatley donned alternate captain patches. Criticised as they may have been, it was clear the two veterans brought much to the team; in their absence, the team suffered 6-2 losses to Washington and Columbus. Though they regrouped briefly with a victory over the Detroit Red Wings thanks to strong performances from Spezza and Emery, and the team enjoyed yet another victory over the Sabres, those would be the last positive moments pre-Christmas. The team suffered blowout losses to Nashville and Boston, and in a November 21st game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Spezza took an innocent-looking hit by Martin St. Louis badly, twisting his knee. Surely the team was doomed.

Instead, apparently Heatley found balls under the Christmas tree; Alfredsson found skates (he might have been looking under Chris Kelly's tree accidentally). With the help of some stellar goaltending from Ray Emery (observe late December consecutive shutouts) and a commitment to team defense in the absence of Spezza, Fisher and Vermette (two players injured shortly after Christmas), the Senators entered the second half of the season with confidence, work ethic and determination. The early January addition of Mike Comrie, traded for an asset entirely useless to Senators in the form of suspended Alexei Kaigorodov, only helped signal a changed organisation.

The Senators proceeded to tear up the league, particularly the top line of Heatley, Kelly and Alfredsson, whose astounding production rates helped earn Heatley player of the month honours (in what was perhaps the best month for Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin). But it was really Heatley's commitment to playing at both ends of the rink, playing physical and forechecking aggressive, and generally being a creative force rather than a recipient of someone else's efforts than made Heatley's month without Spezza truly memorable. He demonstrated that he was a truly gifted player in his own right, not a leach his apparently invisible and lackadaisical play may make it seem. No where was this more firmly demonstrated than in the January 3rd game against the hated Sabres, when Heatley took matters into his own hands and singlehandedly dismantled the Sabres, recording a shorthanded, even strength and powerplay goal and an assist for a hat trick and four-point performance... in the second period alone.

The Senators entered February as one of the strongest teams in the league. After vaulting from the depths of the Eastern Conference into the thick of the playoff race as the new year dawned, the strong month in the absence of Spezza pushed the Senators well into the top reaches of the Eastern Conference, initially challenging Montreal for the fourth seed before, thanks to a horrid stretch of flu and equally horrid personal issues which befell the Habs' dressing room, (oh, and some pretty decent play from the Senators), they found no lesser Northeast division rivals within their vicinity. In fact, it was the Senators who were closing in on the Buffalo Sabres, themselves racked by injuries. Though the Sabres at one point held a seemingly impenetrable 30-point lead on the miserable Senators, by the end of the season the Senators were just 8 points behind the eventual President's Trophy winners.

Speaking of the President's Trophy winners, they proved to provide the most eventful moments of the Senators season. Already touched upon were the two pivotal November games, and of course the early January game which bore the introduction of Comrie. Unbelievably, the best was yet to come. For a two game stretch in late February, war broke out.

It began in a standard hockey manner: Senators mount a 2-1 lead in the second period, continuing their dominance of the Sabres, including physical dominance: Murray's insistence on using Neil to fill the vacant 1st line RW position next to Heatley and Spezza continues; matched against Drury, Neil delivers a devastating hit to Sabres co-captain a split second after he had dished off the puck. Drury collapses to the ground bleeding, Sabres rookie Drew Stafford stands up for his captain by challenging Neil, they briefly scrap, and the matter is settled. Uh, or not.

Infuriated at the blow to his captain, an incensed Lindy Ruff matches Mair, Kaleta and Peters against Heatley, Spezza and Comrie, instructing his goons to, "go out and run 'em". Heatley and Kaleta briefly tussle before the whistle, but nothing comes of it. Things are settled down and the puck is dropped, but no one but Heatley seems to have much mind for the little black disc. Mair mugs a turtling Spezza at the face off dot, Peters runs after Heatley and quickly locks him in a chokehold, while Phillips holds Kaleta at bay. Nothing gets too heated with the skaters, as no Senator is particular interested. The same cannot be said for the goaltenders, with Sabres netminder Martin Biron eagerly gliding to meet Ray Emery at the Senators blueline. Grinning from ear to ear, Emery makes quick work of Biron before the two fall to the ground. Biron makes a light attempt to trip Emery, the two get back up to have another light-hearted go at it. Andrew Peters finally sees an able and willing opponent, and accordingly skates over to challenge Emery. The two have a short battle but nothing much comes of it, with Emery unable to get a clean shot but able to keep his head out of signficiant danger.

However the best battle of the night wasn't even on the ice, but rather between the two coaches. A mortified Rob Ray stood between the benches, his microphone picking up the niceities one would expect to hear from two good friends on such an occasion. Murray stood on the boards to further emphasise his stance; Lindy attempted the same only to fall through (he was not, as some might have assumed, attempting to go after Murray). If there's one thing Murray discovered, it's that you don't go after Ruff's "fucking captain". Period.

With the melee resolved, Martin Gerber and Ryan Miller substituted Emery and Biron. The Sabres alone received 70 penalty minutes in the second period; altogether, 136 penalty minutes were assessed. Though the Sabres eventually won the game 6-5 in the shootout, the Senators overcame a two-goal deficit in the final period to force overtime.

They would return with much vigor in the rematch at Scotiabank Place two nights later, with Brian McGrattan drawing into the lineup for the first time in weeks. McGrattan squared off with Peters while Neil stood up for his teammate Heatley in taking on Mair for alleged comments made. This time, the Senators did not let revenge get in the way of the hockey game, however, and emerged 6-5 victors in regulation.

With an early trade deadline looming, expectations were high on the Senators to acquire a veteran leader to put them over the edge (an acquisition Muckler had consistently failed to make in past years, evidently to little success). Of all the GMs in the league, Muckler was perhaps more on the hot seat than any one. While most of the contenders (Anaheim, Buffalo, Nashville etc.) were considered to have already constructed solid teams, Ottawa's shaky start brought concerns. Additionally, Muckler's poor trade deadline track record (last year's Arnason fiasco a particular blight), signaled to many analysts a reason for him to do something. Though Bill Guerin was of slight interest to outside observers, as was Owen Nolan, it was veteran Gary Roberts who lit a particular spark among those searching to improve the Senators.

Having witnessed him play a huge role in the elimination of the Senators for a number of years in Toronto, and considering his relationship with Spezza, his impeccable work ethic, his relatively cheap price tag and of course the fact that he had publically declared his interest in coming to Ottawa, his acquisition seemed all but a done deal to some observers.

Of course, those observers failed to note that Roberts was Florida Panthers property, and Panthers GM Jacques Martin would not exactly be eager to deliver the potential "missing piece" to his former team and all but secure a Stanley Cup for the team that fired him, if the observers assessment of Roberts' potential impact was even slightly accurate. And of course, even if Martin was interested in delivering that missing piece, he certainly wouldn't do it at a price that didn't benefit his own club substantially, knowing how "desperate" Ottawa must be for Roberts' services. Ha!

Muckler didn't fall for the media bait, and instead acquired depth blueliner Lawrence Nycholat from Washington and depth winger Oleg Saprykin from Phoenix, all for minimal return. Still, certain members of the media could not release their obsession with a Roberts-to-Ottawa deal, guaranteeing that the Senators had made a huge mistake in allowing him to be moved to a potential first-round opponent. Even as the Senators advanced through the playoffs, certain analysts insisted that Roberts was the key, nevermind the fact that he had been golfing for a good 6 weeks at the time of the comments.