Saturday, October 10, 2009

I believe that's called a winning streak

Your first-place Ottawa Senators put up another W tonight, defeating the Atlanta Thrashers 4-2. Goals came from AK27, Ruutu, Fisher, and Neil. What's kinda funny about this is that you don't see any huge names in that list, but their combined salaries are actually is nearly $12.5M. Perhaps we just need to understand that this isn't a team of superstars anymore.

Think about it - for the past few years, we were criticized by fans and pundits for being a one-line team. All anybody had to do was shut down the top line and we were very ordinary (read: beatable). We, as fans, picked on the the second and third line for not carrying their weight and we were never taken seriously because we didn't have the depth. Now, we have plenty of it and people are going to criticize the top line for not earning their salaries.

Guys and girls, this is a team game and the Ottawa Senators now play a team system. We have one superstar in Spezza and we have one really heroic captain in Alfie. After that, we are loaded with very capable forwards that make anywhere between 500K and $5M. Some nights, the 500K guys are going to carry the load and put up some goals, while other nights, it is going to be the $5M guy. Either way, that's gravy for us. Instead of wondering when Spezza will get going, why don't we bask in the satisfaction of having scoring depth throughout the four lines? What a delight to be able to roll all the lines through the first 50 minutes of a game and know that anybody out there might pot a goal? This has got to be a massive weight of Spezza's shoulders! Again, instead of waiting for him to earn his $7M, why don't we just admire the support that he's finally getting from the lower lines? This is awesome!

Now I'm not going to sit here and praise the Clouston defensive system and talk about how he's a genius of hockey. To be honest, there really aren't that many different 'hockey systems' available to coaches. Clouston didn't invent anything here, but what he has done well is get the players to buy into it. Where his predecessors failed, he has shown his players that a high tempo style on the forecheck creates changes, and a collapsing defensive zone strategy helps the blueliners and Pascal (Elliot, in tonight's case) handle their duties. Paddock and Hartsburg just let the guys fly around the top line and backcheck when they felt it could help. Clouston has shown all 18 of these skaters that putting five guys in the zone together, whether it be our defensive zone, the neutral zone, or in the opponent's zone, we can use our speed and make things happen.

But your question is valid - we've beaten the Leafs, Islanders, and Thrashers, all whom finished below us in the standings last season. Our test comes Monday night, when we host a clicking Pittsubrgh Penguins team that just dismantled the Leafs tonight. Malkin and Staal were playing together with Crosby on his own line. This means Coach Clouston will have to decide if the Rig and Train play Geno or the Kid. Either way, it means that someone like Carkner or Karlsson is going to go up against a 100 point player. If our boys pull it off, then we can say with confidence that the winning record has some legitimacy to it.

And while I just praised the scoring depth of this team, is there anyone in Ottawa that isn't pulling hard for Michalek and Cheechoo to snap home some goals? We're uber-sensitive when we see Heatley get off to a hot start in San Jose, even if we know they'll collapse in the playoffs. Our cure is to see Milan 'Watermelon Warrior' Michalek bang one home on Tuesday. Ditto Cheechoo.

On a side note, Regin left the game in the third period with an upper body injury. We'll find out tomorrow or Monday if it is serious, otherwise Shannon might work his way back into the lineup. Clouston has said that nobody in the forward ranks should come out of the lineup right now, so injuries are the only way that Shannon (and Winchester) are getting in right now.

Until Monday...

Thursday, October 08, 2009

I'll take Amusement Parks for $600, Alex

Answer - Six Flags, Wonderland, Scotiabank Place.
Question - What are places to find roller coasters?

The Sens home opener of the 2009-2010 season was defintely a roller coaster ride. It went up, it crashed down. Provided butterflies of suspense, screams or rushes and the ultimate climactic thrill. I feel a little queezy but happy I was along for the ride.

Now that we've survived the rush and are back on solid ground, let's talk about the ride.

Cheezy analogy? A little over the top? Sure. But can you disagree? Tons of ups and downs, a strong lead, a blown lead, some chances, some scrambles and an OT winner. A great game for a first timer at a home opener.

But not ideal for us. Let's make like a 90s song and break it down.

I want to start with Ottawa's second line. I have high aspirations for Foligno and high hopes for Fisher and Kovalev. Throughout the game, I had a knot in my stomach when these guys were on the ice. Kovalev - who I thought showed brilliance on Tuesday - gave us a classic Enigma game tonight. It's as if there was no sense of urgency and felt he could turn the switch off while we cruised to a 2-0 lead. As a result, his crash and bang linemates were left behind in an awkward situation. Maybe Fisher was trying to do too much as a result, but I found him turning over the puck and making bad decisions all too often. You might be ready to knock me out right now for calling out Fisher, but don't worry, I'll get back to him later. In any case, this line (and by that I mean our second, whatever that turns out to be) is crucial to our success. (Note: I'm not commenting on Kovy's missed chance in the 3rd. In fact, that wasn't a missed chance but a brilliant save.)

What I really like about this team is the balanced attack, but without a productive second line, we'll be left with no nails and on the end of one goal losses all season. An unproductive second will burn us. Let's hope we find a productive one.

Other red flags on the night, aside from those in the stands (hiyoo!) - another 2 goals in 60 mins and, more importantly, a blown 2 goal lead. Sure, we scored 3 tonight but the offence has to get going within the first 60 mins (see 2nd line comment above) if we want to make the playoffs. It's early, I'm not worried, but I'm just saying. That last sentence also applies to this... the blown two goal lead. Way too many defensive breakdowns tonight. Kuba was out and we spent time on the PK, but we shouldn't be giving leads to the Isles. Again, I realize it's early and I trust Clouston will tighten up moving forward, but it's a flag.

And then there's out favourite rookie, the teen dream, Erik Karlsson. I'm not knocking the kid just yet, I have a lot of high hopes for him, and I've never played a home opener in the NHL - but the kid needs to settle down. God love him he tries his best. The irony? Sometimes it seems his strong efforts are his downfall, trying to do to much leading to mistakes. I'm not calling him out here, and I suspect he's quickly learning game by game, but hopefully he settles down in games 4-10 to ensure his spot for the season.

Had enough lows? Let's hit the highs!

How about that 3rd line? Chris Neil was my guy tonight! He made me happy we resigned him. I hate to mimick Brown and Galley's comments, but for me, Neil was super effective tonight. Making hits and creating chances. And it wasn't a solo effort! While he didn't score, Cheechoo was effective tonight as well. He got an assist on Carks' goal and helped create Regin's by keeping the D busy while Regin was left all alone for an easy tap in.

The Cargo Express, the Furious Freighters - ATrain and Big Rig. After a slow season, these two appear to be back to their old ways of shutting down the opposition. Philly's playing the pure veteran leadership role while Volchenkov's hitting everyone. Who feels bad for rookies crossing ATrain's tracks? Not this guy. And sure Okposo scored against Anton, but that goal would've left Pronger and Chara looking for their jocks.

Carks! Who doesn't love the hometown boy (I took my G2 test in Winchester, it's close enough). AHL lifer, makes the team on hard work and (dare I say) truculance, and scores his first NHL goal in the home opener? Simply awesome. More importantly, our made-it-as-the-7th-defenceman has played solid for three games straight with no major gaffes. While this guy has a long season ahead, he's quickly becoming a fan fave. And a love it. Kudos to our fans for a standing O after Carks' first ever. Good on ya.

Snoopy. He didn't steal this one, but kept us in it. A few big saves at crucial moments and a couple goals against that would've beat anyone. How about that pad on Tavares. Anyone miss Vermette? I know I said our second line production is crucial, but Pascale is the master key to success.

And, the climax? Fisher's shot. I told you I'd get back to Fisher. But in this case, it's his shot more than anything. What a blast. Let's hope this gives him a boost to kick his game into high gear and lead that second line.

So, in summary, we won. Phew. There were a lot of highs and a lot of lows, and I didn't even get to our first line (Alfie, Spez and the Watermelon Warrior will be unreal soon, mark my words), Donovan (who's earning his 4th line spot shift by shift)or Campoli (who I'm waiting to see more from). In all honesty, as much as I'm an optimist, I think there were more lows than we like.

We had a big win. A crucial 2 points. We're 2-1. Two squeakers against non-playoff teams, one loss against one playoff team. We're good but are we tough to play against? I'm not sure yet. What do you think? Keep in mind, let's not be victim of Premature Evaluation. On a positive note, let's remember, it's early!

After a long post game report, I'm hungry, tired and a little out of breath. But before I go, I need to express my biggest concern of the night (and it's not the contraversy of the off-the-mesh goal) - we didn't sell out. Ouch.

So you have our thoughts. Now for the fun, over to you. What do you think of Fisher, the Freighters and our near capacity crowd? Picard gave scares at the end of the second, our first line didn't score but Spezza's effectively killing penalties and playing sound D and Kovy's helmet is loose. Let's hear you! Sock it to me!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Not Last Place! Pascal for PM and other thoughts on the win in TO

First off, while the offensive sizzle and physical battles were not quite there in the game tonight, I didn't find it too boring. Pardon me if I respect a team that plays a great road game and completely shuts off the neutral zone. Furthermore, if we were worried about defensive zone coverage, all we needed was a bad opening night loss followed by three days of practice to fix it. Centres did a helluva job backchecking down to the slot and corners tonight and very rarely did we have trouble with the outlet pass past their truculent defencemen. Obviously we chased them around a bit in the late third, but that's more about Toronto facing hometown pressure to salvage pride and we still only gave up the one powerplay goal. All in all, I don't care that we only scored a pair tonight as the focus appeared more on helping out in our own end and holding them in line. The challenge will be to see if we can do that on a team that is completely effing awful like Toronto is.

I'm not an 'I told you so' person, but my knocks on Francois Beauchemin in the summer weren't out of jealousy or anger the he signed down the road. He truly was overrated and while I'm not surprised fans had clouded judgment and neglected to credit his defensive partner, the almighty Scott Niedermeyer, I thought Burkie would have known better. But focus was on truculence, right? And making the playoffs? Burkie fell victim to his own hypocricy and the only person that will enjoy it more than Habs and Sens fans is Peter Chiarelli.

But back to us - some other thoughts:

1. Erik Karlsson - I like him a lot back there. I will be the first to say that he has his defensive lapses, but he's in his SECOND NHL GAME EVER! In my opinion, so long as he isn't costing us wins, he is best served playing in the big leagues against the fastest skaters and hardest hitters. What is he going to accomplish in Binghamton, learn how to stick check Denis Hamel? Luke Schenn made it through last year as a decent player and we are all led to believe Karlsson, while of a different style than Schenn, is supposed to be the better player. He isn't going to lose us a game because he won't see much ice late in the close games, but he'll learn the speed and vision so much better at this level. I truly hope he stays.

2. AK27, l'Artiste, can be a magician with that puck. It's a shame that nobody cares to finish off his plays. I was talking with Pynch about this during the game and we agree that Clouston is kinda cornered here. Michalek is a better complement to Spezza and Alfie up front because of his speed and finish (though he could have finished the game off on the Schenn turnover...). So Kovalev, who is basically another Alfie, is stuck with guys that can skate fast and go to the corners, but lack the hands. It is night's like this that make me wish Cheechoo can quickly rediscover his mojo. Kovalev has the vision and the hands to feather a pass through legs and onto the net. Cheechoo and Clouston have talked about how the player needs to start driving the net and getting garbage goals again. Did the light bulb go off? First, Cheechoo needs to earn the icetime by showing some courage out there and working his way off the third line. After that, look out.

3. Phillips and Volchenkov looked very strong tonight. There were a couple of times where the former had trouble clearing the puck, which is unacceptable from a player of his experience, but their physical play tonight was a breath of fresh air. I can't wait to see Tavares try to cut in on A-Train on Thursday night like Stralberg did tonight.

4. Even knowing that Canuknik will disagree, I have to take a shot at Alex Picard. Dude gets back into the lineup based on the Kuba injury and shows his coach his value by fanning on passes and taking a lame hooking penalty in the third period. Contrast that with Donovan, who also made it into the game because of an injury - all Chum did was skate his ass off and score the first goal on a scramble in the crease. Alexandre - get your act together. Stop reinforcing what we already know in the only reason Lee was sent down was a dollars and cents thing. At least try and be an NHL calibre player; otherwise, you're another bad cap hit like Schubert was. You know who else proved his mettle tonight? Carkner. Solid game all around.

5. Pascal! I have a feeling most nights will end with me praising this guy. Perhaps it is his personality from his interviews that makes me love this goalie, or the barberpole pads. You can argue that he stole one for us tonight. They cranked it up in the third and his pad save on Stajan (is he supposed to be their goal scorer?) in the dying seconds was huge. In the face of oncoming pressure and momentum, all he did was make a huge save and freeze the puck. I know the last Kaberle shot looked harmless, but that is more because Pascal anticipated the play and bolted out of the crease to cut off that angle. Kaberle wound up and all he saw was this big, smiling French face a few feet away. Brilliant. There isn't anyone in Ottawa that isn't pulling for this guy to have a huge year and his first two games are kicking off the season great.

Final thoughts: It shows that there is a big difference in the style of preseason (open skating) and the regular season (far more grinding). Guys that excelled in the preseason need to make the adjustment now. Let's hope for old time's sake, we light up the Isles and get Garrioch off our backs about the goal scoring. And how great was Alfie's move? In earlier shootouts, he always took the shot but it sounds like he's been going all backhand deke in practice. Whatever, just score! Finally, what about the Kovalev saucer pass to Karlsson? That thing was five feet off the ground and landed flat in front of the kid for a one timer. I always thought Alfie had the best saucer pass in hockey, but I stand corrected. Kovalev looked superb in the second half, so poised with the puck. That's gonna help us so much in these one goal games.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Monday Musings

Sorry for the lack of a thorough post game report. I'll try and get them up regularly but we ain't a daily here! At a minimum, we'll get out some basic thoughts to get the discussion going. Best case scenario, we have a nice post game report format that highlights some of the finer points of each game.

Let's get into it:

1. I stand by my comments from Saturday night - Pascal Leclaire played incredible. I was disappointed and pissed off, but not surprised that the good folks at the Ottawa Sun said he didn't have as good a game as he would have liked. Is that because they beat him four times? Tell me which one of those goals he should have saved? If anything, we should be talking about the brutal defensive breakdowns that led to the odd-man rushes, the breakaways, and the blatant screen shot (c'mon Volchenkov, move a body). Leclaire kept us in the game fighting off three straight powerplays in the first and was a truly calming influence throughout the 58:30 he was out there. If Pascal can play like that all year, we're a playoff team. Moral of this story - I was thrilled with his performance and can't wait til Tuesday night in the big smoke.

2. The kid will make a few blunders. Understanding that he's 19 years old, we're just going to have to take the good with the not so good. The Dubinsky goal was a result of Karlsson over-committing on a pass and then not being able to get back in the play. Chalk it up to experience as he's smart enough not to make that play again. That being said, it is his aggressiveness and his offensive instinct that we lack back there, so let's just hope that the coaching staff knows how to advise him on the defensive side without stunting the offensive side.

3. As Duthie said, we'll love and hate Kovalev back and fourth throughout the year. Given his invisibility Saturday night (and yes, he wasn't the only one that had a soft game), he's not off to a great start. Again, it is one game and we won't pass judgment on any of the weaker efforts just yet, but I really would like to see AK27 light it up tomorrow night.

4. Michalek busting out on the breakaway (and getting stoned by King Hank) was unreal. Imagine if he's good for one of those a week? Once he finds chemistry and finish with Spezza, he's a 35-goal scorer with that speed.

5. My final thought - let's not get ahead of ourselves or too down on ourselves. As I said before camp, this is a team that is going to fight until the 82nd game for a playoff spot. For those of you that think we're competing for the NE division or for home ice advantage has set themselves up for a major letdown. Our defence isn't good enough. And for those that want to throw themselves into the Eternal Flame over the loss, chillax (do the kids still say that?). It was one game. The Wings are 0-2, the Canucks are 0-2, etc. You can't really judge your team's strengths and weaknesses until the 20-25 game point. That gives you enough time to adequately assess where we're headed and enough time to make adjustments. So while I'll join the fans in the highs and lows of each 60 minute game between now and then, I'll keep my emotions on the season in check until we hit that 25 game mark.

In the meantime - wouldn't it just feel great to spot a win tomorrow night AND remind the Leafs that they gave Boston a top ten pick for Kessel?