Friday, November 21, 2008

Canadiens 3 - Senators 2 (SO)

What a disappointing end to a really well played game. This game was all Sens and it's unfortunate they came out on the wrong side of things, but a bad call in the second and some intense play from the Habs in the final five of regulation was enough to be the difference. I think the Senators are really starting to put things together and though it's not reflected in a very comforting way on the scoresheet or in the standings, it doesn't feel like this team just lost its 6th game. They are playing very good hockey right now and it will start to pay dividends soon enough, they just need to keep the energy up.

For years the average fan has claimed that they would gladly and eagerly swap regular season dominance for playoff effectiveness. That they don't care at all about wins in October or November or December, as long as they can play tough hockey when it matters. But when the Sens do exactly that, swap personnel for a team more geared to playoff success but which is going through a requisite growing process in the regular season, people freak out and want half the team gone, along with the coach and GM. The team is taking baby steps towards competitive hockey and though it's not easy or delightful to watch the process unfold, in the end it will be so much more preferable to this team throwing in a couple 7-4 games to inflate the stats and mask bad habits and ineffectual play which will come back to haunt us in the spring - the Senators are taking the right approach.

For the first time in this losing streak that now stretches an unfortunate two weeks, I left the game disappointed about the loss but not ashamed, infuriated or confused about the performance. The Senators played a win-worthy game tonight, even moreso than on Monday against the Rangers. While again, it is little comfort to say the Senators "played well" or "tried hard" when looking at the standings, it is important to keep in perspective the length of the season. A good stretch of games half as long as this losing streak, and the team will be an a playoff position.

Most important to keep in mind, is the way the Senators have been losing games. Offense has been hard to come by, which has lead to a bevy of 2-1 or 3-2 defeats, but the Senators defensive play from all skaters remains impressive, Auld continues to place among the league's best goaltenders in the relevant statistical categories, and the penalty kill continues to shut down the opposition. Last year's weaknesses have become this year's strengths under Hartsburg. While the lack of offense is frustrating if not worrying, the Senators continue to out-chance the opposition and create multiple "sure" goal opportunities on a nightly basis - it is not a lack of effort, creativity, chemistry or talent that is leading to a lack of goals, simply a lack of finish. Is it reassuring? Far from it, but as all of the league's top players attest, as long as a player or team is generating chances, it is only a matter of time before the pucks start going in, and once they do, they rarely stop.

The Senators have an opportunity on Saturday afternoon to continue to their streak of good play, only this time attempt to broaden the performance to include a victory, in a rematch against the New York Rangers. It will be veteran defenseman Wade Redden's Rangers debut at Scotiabank Place, so anticipate a spirited effort from both sides. In addition, the Ottawa Senators will debut their black alternate jerseys, and if mustache contests aren't enough to generate wins for this team, perhaps a lucky third jersey will be.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Reunited and It Feels So Meh

With the Senators marred in a four game slide marked by inconsistent offense (to put it gently) and lackadaisical play, head coach Craig Hartsburg is opting to reunite the big line of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson in anticipation of tonight's tilt against the New York Rangers. Though, like Bryan Murray and John Paddock before him, Hartsburg came into this season with a view to spread offense by rotating Alfredsson to the second line, like his predecessors he found the split ineffective. Heatley and Spezza have yet to generate any offense of note over the four game slide that began in Carolina on November 7th, and Alfredsson, though an assist machine, has yet to score a goal since October 24th against the Anaheim Ducks. And so, 17 games and 6 wins into the season, Hartsburg is trying his luck with a line that is never impotent for long, if ever.

And still, the potential of improved offense merely by way of reshuffling is not as alluring as it should be to a team that celebrated an eventuallly meaningless third period goal against the NYI like an OT winner. Because, while we know the capabilities of the pizza line when together, the league's most dominant line at its best, it doesn't put the team in the greatest position for long term success. The arguments for the reuniting are simple, and to most points rational. The Senators will score more; more goals means (ideally) more wins. Offensive pressure, goals, and wins all generate confidence, which will trickle down the lineup. Alex Auld won't play with the worry that he needs a shutout just to keep his team in the game; Mike Fisher and Antoine Vermette won't be gripping their sticks trying to live up to their new contracts and new roles. A weight of pressure will be lifted off the shoulders of all involved, including the big three, whose positioning, quick reaction, passing ability, cycling pressure and all-around battle level is always highest with each other.

But there are legitimate concerns to be addressed whenever the three are put together, which all go back to the reason they were split apart in the first place. The first, is that Heatley and Spezza should be able to produce on their own, with or without each other and certainly with or without Alfredsson. With the personnel the Senators have, there is no reason Hartsburg can't find two equal offensive lines with which to work. The second reason follows: without splitting up the big three, the Senators are a one-dimensonal threat which, if neutralised by a strong defensive centre or a couple tough blueliners, will make the team uncompetitive at every turn except against the weakest or most injury-riddled club. By placing Alfredsson on the second line, they force the opposition to defend against two equal threats, either splitting their defensive effectiveness, or still ganging up on the top line and allowing the second some freedom. Then there is the matter of allowing the Senators' secondary producers (Fisher, Vermette, Kelly, Foligno) the opportunity to play with a decent playmaker, something they lack in their own abilities.

Unfortunately, when the Senators are playing the way they currently are, with the big three snake-bitten and ineffective offensive, neither option seems particularly appealing. Reunite them, and you are only playing into the belief that the Senators cannot possible function without loading up the big guns, and that Heatley and Spezza cannot generate anything without Alfredsson there to guide them. And even if the reuniting is successful, once they meet punishing opposition and Hartsburg attempts to split them up, the panic and uninspired play will return, because everybody believes this team can only succeed with Alfredsson on the top line. But keep them apart, when everyone is failing offensively, and the lack of confidence breeds all the same, along with frustration which rarely seems to be a motivator for this team, only a roadblock.

Clearly, the situation is not an easy one for Hartsburg to address. More concerning still, is what will happen if the big three do not immediately show results upon being reunited. This third scenario is more alarming that anything, but fortunately history shows the opposite. If Heatley, Spezza and Alfredsson can begin to generate some even-strength offense, it will be the first step in getting this wayward season back on track.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Post-Montreal Thoughts

The Senators are nearing a potential crossroads in the season, as frustration boils over. Players are snipping at the media (Heatley), bickering with each other (Heatley and Kelly), being torn apart by the coach and media (Spezza), glumly shuffling through the daily routines (Gerber), being suspended for in-game antics (Ruutu), and, at the point of culmination today, smashing arena glass after a failed practice drill (Alfredsson). Despite a 4-0-1 streak that ran through Thursday night's game against the Philadelphia Flyers and seemed to breathe life into a see-saw start to the early season, the Senators are again suffering from anemic offense and scattered defensive zone play which leaves the goaltender helpless and the coach dumbfounded.

All is not lost, of course. As witnessed with this team in the past, sometimes all it takes is a good kick when down to remind the team of its abilities. As the cliche goes, it is always darkest before light. But was last night's 4-0 steamrolling by the Canadiens the final straw or merely an early reminder of the listlessness and inconsistency that will define the 2008-09 Ottawa Senators season? Despite the tough loss, it is hard not to still see signs of hope. The power play was horrendous; 5-on-5 play was probably worse. The Senators were confused in their own zone and lacked chemistry offensively. Even sniper Dany Heatley failed to score on a third period breakaway, hitting the post.

Over the past few days, there have been panicked proposals recommending benching, trading or waiving over nearly half the roster. Bearing the most noticeable brunt of criticism are Antoine Vermette and Jason Spezza two thirds of a top line that has produced little (other than two called-back goals) even when the Senators were having team success. The Vermette criticisms range from confounding to justifiable - yes, he has clamoured for a significant offensive role for years now, and yes he has done little with the opportunity. But no, the make-shift winger should not shoulder the blame for the Senators poor start, nor has he failed to live up to his earth-shattering $2.76 million salary. Spezza's role as the Senators whipping boy was wholly forseeable, however misguided most criticisms levelled at the star have been. People claim they would gladly sacrifice 20 or so points of his offense in exchange for simpler and more responsible play - only to turn around and cry foul about his lack of production when he follows through on the wishes of his coach (and fans). It is possible to be a defensive stalwart, physical beast and 100 point producer? It certainly is for about two or three NHLers, but it was not an easy nor a quick path to reach that point for any. Any problems with the failure of Spezza to become the singlemost dominant and versatile player in the history of professional sports rests solely in the hands of those creating the expectation, not Spezza. He is playing the rudimentary dump-and-chase game that everyone demanded - stellar offensive results will not come immediately for a player who has spent his entire career playing a different style.

This doesn't mean that criticism of players is inappropriate or unhelpful. The team played a horrible game against Montreal, blew a win against Carolina on Thursday and had stretches of poor play even in their victories early last week against Washington and Philadelphia. Singleling out players with rough games is easy, as is crying out about the need for a #1 puck-moving defenseman or elite goaltender. It's a lot harder to support the players when they are most in need of our confidence. The team has two ways to go right now - they can either feed into the frustration and play a frentically impatient game which erases their strengths, as they cede points and games to the opposition, or they can recommit to the ethics preached so vocally at the beginning of the season - structure, accountability and contributions at both ends of the ice from every player. Last night's Montreal game will be a lynchpin in either direction.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Work in Progress

I'm trying to fix up the design for the site, but bear with me as I work through the kinks. I realise it looks awful on wide-screen and not much better regularly, but I should have it fixed soon.

And now, off to listen to the dulcet tones of Dean Brown and Gord Wilson on the team 1200.