Thursday, December 4, 2008

Senators 5 Thrashers 1

Jeremy at Black Aces points out that the lacklustre loss to the Isles on Saturday now appears more like a blip than a return to apathetic play, and I tend to agree. The Senators have been playing spirited hockey for the more than two weeks, dating back to a November 17th game against the New York Rangers (though the real breakout is more noticeably traced to the 4-1 victory against the same Blueshirts on the 22nd). Last night's game against the Atlanta Thrashers was another meaningful step toward competitive play, a 5-1 landslide which was effectively won by (who else?) the top line in the first period.

It's too early to get excited, of course, but the slowly improving play over this six game stretch offers the most balanced play the Senators have offered since the 2006-07 playoffs. Consistent goaltending? Check. A punishing group of blueliners? Check. Defensive commitment from all five skaters on the ice at any given time? Check. Penalty killing prowess? Check. A threatening powerplay? Check. Dominating offensive pressure? Check (once in a while, maybe).

Last night's victory was only a win against the lowly Thrashers, but in a season where the Senators have managed to cede critical points to the Lightning, Panthers, and Islanders, the win is an occasion worth noting. Especially because, the Senators have a tendency to play up, or down to their opponent, regardless of their own standing. It is why, the Senators can look like a unstoppable force against the Penguins or Rangers, yet turn around with mindboggling effortless and passionless play against the Islanders or Maple Leafs. So that the Senators have managed to put aside this crippling misjudgement and throw everything at a dire opponent, is a small step forward in and of itself.

Second, the team was finally able to generate substantial offense for only the second time since late October; its five goals were the most since the November 22 win against the Rangers, and before that the Senators had not managed to top four goals since an October 27th outing against the Buffalo Sabres. Though the papers, and myself, will attribute this win mostly to the efforts of the big three of Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza (and rightly so), the team received offense from other, encouraging sources. Three of the four forward lines contributed offense (aside from the big three, Shean Donovan, Mike Fisher, Ryan Shannon and Jaarko Ruutu contributed a point each), and a full half of the defense figured on the scoresheet (Brendan Bell with his first goal and first assist as a Senator, and Filip Kuba (x2) and Christoph Schubert with assists). It didn't amount to the offensive breakouts that this team wants, and requires, from Antoine Vermette, Chris Kelly and Mike Fisher, but it was a long-awaited step forward.

Defensively, the team continues to excel, mostly but not exclusively due to the play of Alex Auld. In the aforementioned game on Nov 17th against the Rangers, I recall Rogers Sportsnet flashing a graphic about elite goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and his goal totals in recent games; while the exact stats understandably escape my memory, he had played something like 8 out of the previous 10 games with two goals or less allowed. Dean Brown remarked that that kind of goaltending was a Godsend; that on any given night, Lundqvist provided the kind of goaltending that would give his team, more than their fair share of an opportunity to win each game. I recall looking at the stat with a bit of jealousy, that if only Ottawa could that kind of reliable goaltending, the team would really have a chance.

Here we are two weeks later, and TSN flashed a nearly identical statistic for Auld - he had allowed two goals or less in 6 of his previous 8 starts. Because of the Senators lack of offense, they hadn't been able to capitalise on their goaltender's stellar play in the way the Rangers had, but Auld was providing the opportunity nonetheless. And as the Senators offense (fingers crossed) begins to turn a corner, Auld shows no signs of letting down his guard. In the second period, faced with back-to-back 5-on-3s and a sniper in Ilya Kovalchuk who had made quick work of many Senators goaltenders in the past, Auld yielded absolutely nothing. Auld has done nothing since taking over in late October, except keep the team in each and every game, including many where the team didn't seem to want to be there in the first place. Regardless of where the Senators sit in the standings, Auld consistently creeps up the statistical charts.

Quick notes: The Senators ditched their alternate pant shells for tonight's game - no worries, they didn't seem to affect the lucky streak...Jesse Winchester recorded his first NHL fight, and his second. The last time a Senator recorded two fights in a game they went on to sign a 6-year, $39-million dollar contract the next season - best of luck with that, Winnie... As TSN conveniently makes clear, the last time the big three each recorded a goal in the same period was in October, 2005. Back when the Sens had Chara, Havlat, Hasek and Redden - times flies...Patrick Wiercioch and Jim O'Brien were both named to the preliminary Team Canada and USA junior teams, respectively. Best of luck to both, in addition to the presence of Erik Karlsson and Andre Petersson this will be the first junior tournament of interest from an Ottawa Senators perspective in quite a while.

Monday, December 1, 2008

November Player of the Month

After another losing month, there are not many players who can lay claim to having particularly positive November. Alex Picard made excellent strides after being paired with Filip Kuba and switching to the left side; Daniel Alfredsson recorded 11 points and was a +6 on a team that has been absolutely dire at even strength. But other than those two, the only decent performance rests at Alex Auld, the surprise starting goaltender whom the Senators can thank for a good dozen points in the standings.

In the month of November, Auld recorded a not-so-sparkling 4-4-3 record, however the struggling win column belies his stellar performances in providing the few wins Ottawa did have. Through 11 games in the month, Auld put up a 1.94 GAA and a .924 save percentage. Most impressive, he only allowed the opening goal of the game on three occasions, giving Ottawa the opportunity to establish a lead almost every night.

Auld provided the Senators with reliable, consistent goaltending, allowing the team to establish confidence from the blueline out. No longer did defensemen flail all over the ice like dead fish, attempting to block each and every shot for fear that a shot on net would result in a sure goal. Auld's reliability allowed Hartsburg's defensive system to flourish, with defensemen playing smart positional hockey instead of panicking in an effort to minimise goaltender exposure. Unfortunately, the offense failed to flourish in the same manner as the defense, with the Senators providing one goal or less in 6 of the 12 games (including a 2-1 loss to Carolina which featured Martin Gerber in nets), and two goals or less on 10 of 12 nights.

Among goaltenders who have played 10 games or more, Alex Auld currently ranks 7th in save percentage, even though his team allows the 8th most shots per game. He ranks 4th in goals against average.

If the Senators had been able to provide offense, it wouldn't have been surprising to see them finish the month with 4 or 5 more victories; as it stood, the few it earned were by the hand of Alex Auld. And for that reason, he deserves player of the month honours.