Saturday, October 24, 2009

One Point Taken, One Point Given Back; Plus, My Take on Cheechoo (with video)

Just 48 hours after stealing an undeserved point against the Predators, we graciously give one back by blowing a two-goal lead in the dying minutes before succumbing in overtime to the offensively-struggling Bruins.

I was preparing to write a really heartfelt blog about puck possession in the third period and how this team has really turned a corner. It turns out that we just made four left turns and are right back where we were a few days ago. This was ugly and there is just no excuse for it.

On one hand, some fans will look at this and call it even steven - we shouldn't have gotten any points against Nashville and we should have gotten two in this one, so we come out of it with two points. Statistically, that's fine but there are some psychological ramifications in this one, folks. This is two overtime games we've lost in a row and a brutally blown lead against a team that is missing Savard and Lucic and hasn't replaced Kessel. Sure, they've got a world-class goalie that robbed us a few times, but this was in the bag and we pulled it back out and handed it to them.

A quick shout out to Carkner's two fights and Neil's one wrestling match. Nice physical game from the whole team tonight.

A few highlights:

- Nobody was benched tonight! Hooray for Picard and Cheechoo! Ruutu had the least amount of icetime at 9:03, which means we rolled four lines for the better part of the game. This works better than draining the top six forwards and top two pairings when we get to the grinding days of March.

- Michalek is an amazing player. I said on the day of the trade that this guy was going to become a fan favourite and after a game like tonight, he should really start selling some jerseys soon. His speed is already known to be unreal, the best on the team. Add to that aspect that Watermelon Warrior is a very skilled penalty killer and we gain a nice edge. Also go ahead and add that he is enthusiastic and passionate out there. I love a guy that scores a go-ahead goal and jumps off the glass, cheering with the fans. Be happy that you scored, right Grapes? The kid is clearly fitting in well. Obviously, he doesn't take any heat from a hockey market when he keeps scoring, so that helps, although would it kill the kid to get an assist? Cy is gonna have a tough time, though, when his two linemates haven't scored in nine games, eh?

- Alfie was flying today. Not only did he show his skill on that shorthanded goal when he took a pass between his legs on his skate and withheld the reach on the way in, but he just had his poise back tonight. I thought he had a tough time corralling the puck Thursday, but it appears it was just a 24-hour bug for him as he was back on his game tonight. He's gonna have nightmares about the save that Thomas made on him on that great feed from Kovalev.


- I know that the last one was tipped in, and I know that we gave Leclaire a free pass after the six-spot, but I kinda hoped that BEe Keeper could have stopped one of those damn goals late in the third. It's hard to say that Pascal would have won that game, so I'm not going to say that (or did I just say that...). Still, you want your goalie to make that one huge save when you need it the most and we didn't get it tonight.

- Mike Fisher's clearing attempts. Sure, the ladies in the city will be blinded by those eyes and half the fans will be happy that he scored a dirty goal to get the edge, but his failure to clear the puck in the final minute is completely unacceptable from a professional. Puck on your stick, one goal lead, last minute, GET RID OF IT!!!! Fisher instead banked it off the boards in our zone and the puck stayed in, only to end up in the back of our net 15 seconds later. That's the tying goal, people. I just hate seeing fundamental hockey blown like that. Fish knows better. Sorry, Carrie, I know you don't like reading this stuff.

- I know that the local papers picked on him today, but I want to try and solve the riddle of Jonathan Cheechoo. Seriously, this is a guy that scored 56 goals. We have never seen a 56 goal scorer, so we don't even know just how often a guy has to put it in the net to accomplish this. In Heatley's two 50-goal seasons, he scored so damn often that you called him out if he went two games without a goal. Add six to that and it is Cheechoo's Maurice Richard Trophy winning season. So why can he not score a single goal in nine games this year, adding to a vicious downward trend since that season.

That's our transition into the Cheechoo piece.

Here's a 10 minute look at most of his 56 goals:

So here are some notes from that video:

1. Just about every single one of those goals is from the slot right in front of the net. Whether he's there receiving a pass (from Thornton, usually) or he is there in position to capitalize on a rebound, he scored a ton of goals in that zone. How often have you seen him there this year in Ottawa? This isn't rocket science. Spezza plays such a similar style to Thornton and has the puck on a string when they gain the zone, so there shouldn't be much of an adjustment.

2. He has a lightning fast release on that snap shot one-timer. Most of his shots this year - he has 20 shots in 9 games - are from difficult angles or with guys in his face. He hasn't found open space to be set up like he was in San Jose. Again, there should be so much open space when his linemates draw defenders and backcheckers, but he doesn't find the open ice.

3. He was semi-fast. He actually had enough speed to keep pace on a breakout or to fly down on a two-on-one odd man rush. I know he won't keep up with Michalek and Spezza, but he looks slow as hell out there right now.

Possible excuses/reasons for the slowdown:

1. The injury bug. Sure, I hear that. But we all heard he has done the recovery thing, worked out very hard this year, and is 100% healthy. Plus, injuries don't change how a guy like this scores goals in the slot. If it slows him down a bit, I get that, but it doesn't stop him from getting to the front of the net.

2. It was a fluke. I don't buy that. It WAS NOT fluke. Watch that video and tell me this guy didn't get in the slot and hammer home a ton of goals. He was an elite goal scorer and that doesn't happen by chance. On any given night, an average player can put up a a few goals and play out of their skates. Cheechoo had FIVE hat tricks in the 56 goal season. Five hat tricks. That isn't a fluke. He is good enough to score goals at this level.

3. Spezza is a rightie, Thornton was a leftie. I read this in the paper somewhere today and it is kinda valid, I guess. Thornton gains the blue line and veers to the right wing while looking for a pass. With Cheechoo being a right-hand shot, he's set up very well for a one-timer. Spezza gains the zone and heads to the left wing, meaning the one timer has to go across Cheechoo's body, which basically takes it out of the playbook. There is some merit to this, but again, watching that video showed that there were so many goals on broken plays, rebounds, and passes from behind the net from Thornton. Spezza gets behind the net a lot, as well, and Cheechoo needs to get his stick up in the slot and get something to eat.

I know Clouston has been working with him on driving to the net again and until he regains the knack for the crease, the dude is going to continue to struggle. As it stands today, he is a $3M forward that doesn't score, doesn't assist, doesn't play on the top powerplay, doesn't kill penalties, doesn't fight, doesn't forecheck, and doesn't make saves. I am a huge fan and would love to see this guy break out and get his career back on track, not just because it helps us but because it makes a great comeback story. He's going to get a free ride from fans for a while, but the more goals that Michalek puts in, the more we're going to wonder why Cheechoo can't do it, too. Hit the slot and start banging some home.

What do you guys think? How do we solve the riddle of Jonathan Cheechoo?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Ups and Downs of Being a Sens Fan

There you have it, in 63 minutes, we all see first hand how our season is likely to go. There were moments of brilliance, like Spezza flying end to end before flipping it back to A-Train for one of three tying goals we had. There were moments of humiliation, like Picard tipping it into his own net or the Kelly turnover behind the net (those are two of many, many turnovers and I'm sorry for picking on those two alone). Reasons to cheer and reasons to scream. Yep, that's what we're in for all year long. We are not a first place team but we are certainly far from a last place team. Much like we did in this game, we're going to have to fight for our lives until the bitter end, though we hope for a slightly better result than we saw tonight.

It is hard to really touch on all the highs and all the lows because there were just so many twists and turns tonight. Let's try and rattle off a few and you guys and girls can all add your own in the comments.

Things we can hang our hats on

1. Even though Jason Spezza had a few dumb passes in this one, he still flew on the ice. That was easily the fastest he has looked all season and he continues to backcheck harder and harder. I couldn't care less if he doesn't score a single goal all year if he plays like he did tonight (he'd also be on pace for 200+ assists...). Again, not excusing the dipsy doodles in the neutral zone, but he hardly looked like a guy with a nagging back problem. See that, Stevie Y?

2. Pascal. Can we honestly say enough about this guy? I have never before had great things to say about a goalie that just let in six goals, but this one easily could have been 10-0 after 40 minutes. Pascal is such a calming influence out there that it allows the defencemen to use their natural instincts to play to their fundamental ability instead of trying to overcompensate for a weak goalie that they don't trust. You can absolutely tell out there that those skaters know what they have in their nets. He's been very sharp and if he keeps this up, he'll be a huge reason for us making the playoffs.

3. Chris Campoli played his best game of his season. This goes beyond his goal on a 5-on-3 because those things should be automatic. He was second only to A-Train in icetime, putting in over 24 minutes and really looked like he had settled down when he was away from Karlsson. That isn't an intentional knock on the kid, and I know it is still early, but it does need to be pointed out that good players have looked bad when playing with Karlsson so far. I still believe he could do for some AHL time because expectations are unrealistically high (he's not a top ten pick, he's tiny, he needs to be in an environment with less consequence where he can get his mojo back). Full disclosure here, I'm a Campoli fan and think he rounds out our top four (I know that isn't a popular belief). Tonight, he proved that he can handle those minutes and that responsiblity.

Things that make you want to pull your hair out

There were a bunch. The first period was utterly disgusting. Top to bottom, the skaters looked like hell. The only notable performance out there was Snoopy, who for 40 minutes managed to keep this ONLY a three-goal deficit.

1. Turnovers. For the love of Pascal, can a brother get a breakout pass? In the first period, our best chance at getting the puck out of the zone was when the freaking linesman was fishing it out of our net for a centre ice faceoff! Unacceptable performance from professional hockey players. Picard, Phillips, Carkner, Karlsson, Campoli, Alfredsson, Fisher, Kovalev, Kovalev again, Kelly, those are guys that I can think of off the top of my head that turned it over in the first period alone in our end. Snoopy kept us in this.

2. Alex Kovalev, L'enigma. Alright, I'm not going to be the type of fan that does the 'I told you so' each time Kovalev and Carkner have bad games because I truly love these guys and want to see them succeed. I just thought Kovalev as awful tonight. Careless with the puck in all three zones. I get it, though, that's what he's going to be like all year. Then why did we give him $5M? I'm sorry, Sens fans, but for that amount of money, you have to be held to a much higher standard than a guy like a Carkner or a Shannon or anybody else making in the thousands. He's our third highest paid player and he played like hell tonight. It is fair as a fan to call him out for it.

3. Sorry to say it, but Alfie was off his game tonight. I know he finished with two assists (both second assists), but the puck wasn't staying on his blade tonight. Love the guy, but again, as a fan we're allowed to point out the highs and lows and this was an off night for the saviour.

4. Alex Picard stunk tonight, and he ruined Matt Carkner's night. He scored the first two himself on Leclaire and turned over the puck for the third. Picard finished a minus-3 while Carkner was a minus-4 and took the overtime penalty that led to the winner. I'm not going to get too down on this pairing because it is just one game, but now you'll excuse me when I don't soil myself if they have one good game, okay? They're regular players, both that have not played a full NHL season. They'll have great nights (and they have so far this year), and they'll have awful nights. Don't be shocked when I don't rush to the Sens Store for a Picard jersey if he has a multi-point night. Remember - I'm a Sens fan, too, and want nothing more than for all these guys to be superstars!

5. Picard and Cheechoo were notably benched late in the game. We expect that guys like Ruutu and Kelly are going to see less ice in a crazy third period when we need goals, but Cheechoo was pulled off the top line after 20 minutes and I don't remember seeing Picard hardly touching the ice in the third period. I do like how Clouston will send a message, though I don't want him to do it based on salary. If Kovalev is playing like shat, sit him down. This isn't the guidance counselor's office and we aren't handing out stickers. If you stink, you sit. Picard should know to get his stick out of the way of that shot and if he thought it was a pass, then he needs to clear it to the corner, not bury it in our own net.

6. One more - the penalties! Phillips missing the window on a clearing attempt right after we've tied it up is brutal. Then taking a too many men penalty is inexcusable! 4 guys out there at one time, folks, this isn't your first rodeo. We miraculously escape by getting a shortie of our own (Phillips comes back and TOTALLY redeems himself), then Carkner does the old 'kneel down behind the guy and flip him over' play. I have no problem with getting aggressive in the offensive zone, but it was a poor decision and we either would have lost on the 2-on-1 that he created for the Preds, or like we did on the ensuing powerplay from him taking the man down. Bad penalties at bad times and we made their powerplay look legit.

For practice - discipline and breakouts.

On a final note, so we can end this sandwich on a high, you've gotta love how they fought back so hard with five goals in the third period. It shouldn't have gotten so out of hand, but they tied it up three separate times in the third and earned a tough point that will go a long way in April when the dust settles. Commendable effort from the boys in the third period, especially that sickening wrister from Foligno. I love that kid! Also, we're now 0-2 without Chum Donovan.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Midweek Hodge Podge

A few quick hits:
- Spezza left practice early with bumps and bruises and is still probable for tomorrow night. I like to see that the new Spezza gets bumped and bruised - it means he's battling.

- Kuba is still out. Healthy salad Clouston says it is groin/hip/pelvis and they can't seem to fix it. To me, this is sounding less of 'day-to-day' and more like 'indefinite'. Meanwhile, Picard, Campoli, and Karlsson can continue their extended tryouts.

- Ilja/Ilya Zubov is 'on loan' to Russia for the year, awaiting his inevitable trade to the Coyotes.

- Earl McRae continues to maintain the low, low standards of all Sun writers. His comments about Ottawa fans aren't controversial, they're just dumb. Maybe that earns him a spot in their Digital Faceoff. Roy McGregor, please come home!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Why I Don't Like The Carkner Signing...Today

It is a great story about perseverance, a local boy turned hero, the kid that worked through adversity and paid his dues. Matt Carkner, after 7 games with his hometown Senators, has been given a two-year extension at a modest $700K per year, and on a one-way deal.

Carks has showed his worth to this team in his short time here. He has great work ethic, he's a smart hockey player, and he's got that grit that we love. As Murray put it today, Carks will be a great influence on the new players on 'how to show up at camp, earn a spot, and keep it'. I really like the guy and think he's been one of our most consistent players. If it weren't for the incredible rebound years of A-Train and Big Rig, you could make an argument for Carkner being one of our best defenceman.

What stinks about this signing, though, is the timing of it. What does this accomplish? Why are we handing out one-way contracts to a guy with two weeks of service? In my opinion, there is nothing to lose in hanging out until the second half of the season to see how he does over the long haul? Hell, why not wait until June after the season, before he hits 'free agency'? I like the signing, but I definitely don't like it being done today. There was no need to do this now, long before we saw how he AND the rest of the defenceman perform over the season.

But his value can only go up during the season, Murray got him for a good deal
How much could his salary possibly have risen this season? He is a 28-year old rookie that has toiled in the minors. He isn't going to hit 20 points. His role is a stay at home defenceman in the second pairing at best. What is he possibly going to accomplish this year that will put his salary over a million dollars after one year in the league? I love the way he's playing, but let's not pretend that he's going to turn into a top pairing player and command in the millions. He'll continue in this role all year, getting PK minutes in the second or third pairing and we could sign him for the exact amount in June as we did today. I don't think we saved a paramount dollar figure by getting this done today.

But it is a small salary and a short term - it is movable, if necessary
Sure, it isn't a major hit on the cap, but it is money out of Eugene's pocket. If Carks needs to go to Bingo for any reason and he gets through waivers, we're paying him a fair amount of money to ride buses. Can you really tell me that Carkner wouldn't have accepted a two-way deal? I know that is kind of a slap in the face to a guy that just made it, but to get $700K in the bigs but keep the door open for a stint in Bingo shouldn't have been off the table. We already had to deal with Schubert for too long and finally moved him for nothing on waivers. While Carkner is a far better defenceman than Schubert, we could easily find ourselves in that same position.

But it creates healthy competition for Picard/Campoli/Karlsson/Lee to work harder
Why? Carkner doesn't play the same style as any of those guys. We know Phillips is a Senator for life and we know that Volchenkov is far too valuable to let go - they're both here for years to come. Carkner is now taking up a spot, as are Kuba, Campoli, and Picard. That makes a cool six, boys and girls. No Brian Lee, no Jared Cowen, and no Patrick Wiercioch. Oh yeah, and isn't there some Swedish kid that Murray says is going to continue getting playing time? I don't see how giving him the deal now, thus guaranteeing that Lee isn't in the regular lineup all year, creates healthy competition. Our options now become to either sit Picard, who has been playing solid hockey, or to sit Campoli, the guy that we gave up a first round pick to acquire and probably our second best offensive defenceman.

Listen, folks, I really like Matt Carkner. I'm glad he's got a contract and I'm thrilled with the way he is playing. I just think the contract is far too premature and was pointless to get done in October. He wasn't going to drive his price up over the season and it takes away a lot of flexibility on that blue line from both a coaching perspective and a management perspective. Glad he's here but am not thrilled at giving him a one-way contract so soon. It just doesn't make sense to me.

Monday/Tuesday Musings

Sorry for the delay.

1. Erik Karlsson played his best game on Saturday night. Murray has already said that the 10 game mark is irrelevant to his decisions on the kid, so that hopefully took some pressure off. He just needs to take a deep breath and stop trying to do too much. Perhaps some road games will do him some good, getting out of the spotlight (much like he was out of it Saturday night when all attention was on AK27, as Panzeri pointed out).

2. This does lead us to another point of discussion, though, because we all expect Kuba to be back on Thursday night when we host the Predators. Who comes out? Picard has been playing solid hockey with Carkner, so you don't want to break that up. Campoli, while not showing up much on the scoresheet, is still the more reliable dman over Karlsson. So who comes out? Do you risk hurting the team by sitting Campoli, the better dman right now, to help with the development of Karlsson? We've already sent Lee down to make room for the kid, so how many accomodations will we make? The kid deserves a chance to succeed, no question, so it will be interesting to see Clouston with his first really tough decision.

3. Speaking of decisions, it sounds like Regin will retake the spot as third line centre from Shannon. I said in the summer that Ryan Shannon is a serviceable player but not a regular NHL forward. We don't just acquire some kid in a minor league trade that blossoms into a top nine forward without much work. He is fast as hell, yes, but it doesn't mean that he's an 82-game player like a Foligno is for us. Glad we have him and love his speed, but he's the 13th forward, to me. That also makes Winchester the 14th forward. Again, it is a good problem to have and creates some healthy competition, but that makes three warm bodies in the press box every game. My guess is on Campoli, Shannon, and Winchester hanging upstairs, fair or not.

4. We need to continue piling up wins in October. Our schedule has us with the Preds on Thursday, then to the struggling Bruins on Saturday. This is really the game that I want to see us win. Take a team that dominated us last year but is slow out of the gate and let us add to their misery. I think we can have a lot of believers out there if we come out strong in Beantown. We then finish the month with Florida, Tampa, and Atlanta. Duff's mindset - we must win 4 of those 5 games to get off flying in this season. Win the games you are supposed to win. Things get a bit tougher in November - Devils twice, plus Pittsburgh, Philly, and the Rags. Let's get our wins now so we have a buffer against those dominant teams. I believe in us as a playoff team, but not as a second place team. This thing will still come down to April and these October points against garbage opponents are critical. This is the difference between making it in (us) and missing out (Montreal and Toronto, per my earlier predictions).

5. Shout out to some great performances in the past week - obviously the watermelon warrior with the hat trick v Tampa, along with a solid game from Cheechoo. Carkner has been playing like he's 28 years old out there (and he is) and is easily one of our top players. The fourth line has been earning and receiving solid ice time, which not only gets us a few goals but also means that the top six guys don't have to log 22+ minutes a night. Remember the Hartburg era when the pizza line was playing 24 minutes a night and was burnt out by Christmas? The energy that our top players are saving now will be critical in March and April (and May?). And last but not least, Snoopy in nets has been unreal. Best goalie we've ever had (I don't acknowledge the Hasek era, blocked from memory). What a difference in makes when the forwards don't have to hang out below the slot for the entire shift because they don't trust their goalie. Carvel said it perfect that the PK is so much better now because they trust the goalie to stop the pucks from certain areas of the ice, leaving them to cover much less territory than in the past. Pascal, you're the top star so far, mon ami!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Power Rankings

This week's power rankings have been published across several sports media sites, including TSN, Sportsnet and ESPN. Not surprisingly, the Sens are in the top 10 across all three rankings. ESPN sees the most power in our boys, slotting them in the #6 spot. Sportsnet likes us as 8th in the league while TSN ranks us 10th overall. Not too bad.

We can take a lot of pride in this as none of these media outlets gave Ottawa the time of day in their preseason predictions. It seems everyone who gets paid to talk hockey felt Ottawa was not strong enough to make the playoffs, even ranking us lower than the Leafs in some cases (who are not surprisingly ranked 30th across all power rankings. Do they have a truculance ranking?). This, of course, shocked everyone is doesn't get paid to talk about the Sens and all the dedicated blog readers.

Are these power rankings such a big surprise? Yes, to some. Some naysayers (see Leafs fans) complain that Ottawa's had an easy schedule. But do you think last year's Sens would be 5-2 this year? Not a chance in my opinion. But this year's different. While the outside world didn't see it, Ottawa's off-season changes were crucial to making improvements. This year's team is making leaps and bounds in several areas that have haunted them the past two season. Better yet, these improvements are working hand in hand, up, down, left, right and centre. They're affecting each other positively. We now have a balanced attack with four capable lines, as opposed to one line carrying the weight of our team. We have a reliable, steady goalie (with great pads) that our boys can play comfortably in front of. Without the pressure of one line and shaky goaltending, certain forward are regaining their confidence and having rebound years. This confidence is contributing to a lethal penalty kill and passionate defensive play. There are no rumours about rampant drug use or headlines of white Hummers, aka less drama and divide in the dressing room. This cohesive dressing room is showing on the ice with hard work for 60 minutes, allowing us to create and protect leads. And, while an early prediction, it appears all of this is leading to having one coach for the entire season.

All that combined has made for one powerful team to date, and hopefully they can harness that power for the remainder of the season.