Saturday, January 23, 2010

Those Pesky Senators

Nice game today and another nice road win. What has been most impressive about this 6-game winning streak is that we're beating tough teams on the road. In the first half of the season, we weren't good against tough teams and we weren't good on the road! And now look - we're sitting in 5th place with a six point edge on the playoff race. In a related story, the Sens haven't lost a game since I predicted that we'd miss the playoffs! You're welcome, everyone.

Erik Karlsson continues to impress me. I'm no pro scout and can't say for sure how good he'll be. I think his size will always hold him back from being a true number one, but he can definitely turn into a great number two guy like Brian Rafalski. In fact, I think when we talk about small offensive defencemen, Rafalski is a pretty great role model. Karlsson's best asset right now is his skating. Sure, he is handling the puck better and is being smart in the offensive zone, but he has learned how to move around in his own end and it has made a world of difference. He looks poised out there and isn't a liability. Case in point - he was out there in the last minute with Phillips to hold the one goal lead. Great stuff.

It was great to see Jason Spezza back out there today and he held up his end of the deal by potting the winner. All three of our star forwards have scored a goal in their first game back. For all of us, the Sens don't seem like the same team when Alfie is out of the lineup. While I'm part of that group, I also feel the same way without the Spezz Dispenser. I don't know why, I just love the way he skates, his vision, and his puckhandling. It is a comforting feeling to see him out there again and gives us added hope in the playoff race.

Finally, it is pretty neat to see how annoying we are to play against. Not just in the neutral zone, where we stick check the hell out of our opponents, but in our own zone where we collapse on the puck like something we've never seen. And of course the forecheck is brilliant. The way we play in all three zones add up to one thing - we are damn annoying to play. In games like this afternoon, and over the course of this winning streak, we play up tempo for 60 minutes and don't step off the gas. If you want to take the puck from us, you'd better be prepared to work your ass off to get it from us. When you do have the puck, we're going to pick your pocket or paste you into the glass. If our opponents aren't up to the task, it just adds up to another W for the good guys.

I really hope this keeps up into February and the Olympic break. We have 3 games left this month and 7 games in February. Some opponents are tough (PIT, WAS, etc) and we mix in some more travel. Sitting at 60 points now, I said we need to be at 70 points by the Olympics to be on pace for 94 and the 'line'. If we play .500 hockey from now until the break, we're back on track and I'm on pace to eat my words. To be honest, nothing would make me happier than to sit here on April 10th and say that I was once again wrong and that we're gonna give a run in the postseason.

Great to have you back, Spetz! Let's keep it up, boys.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Wake up call for a few Sens players

Great game tonight. It is never fun blowing a two-goal lead to a tired team, but the boys persevered and leaned on one of those rarely used tools in the shed - the powerplay. All three of the goals tonight were with the man advantage. The nicest one had to be Watermelon Warrior's one-timer in the slot if for no other reason than it was a triumphant return back to the lineup after the concussion.

But as you know, we aren't here for post-game updates. The other Sens blogs like Silver Seven Sens do a great job at that and so we take a different approach. Today, I'd like to sound the alarm for a few players that haven't jumped up and raised the bar in the past five games. Some names are to be expected, some will surprise you. Here we go:

Wake up Call #1: Jonathan Cheechoo

We're all starting to get a bit tired of this act. For the first while, we gave him time to gain chemistry with new linemates. For the next little while, we cut him slack for injury recovery. Then, we defended him because he was a 'hard worker' and had a good attitude. Now, we're full circle and sticking up for him because he's stuck on the fourth line. Let's get over it, everyone. Cheechoo isn't good. I watched him closely tonight and not only is his shot terrible, he has poor positioning. We had a 3-on-2 coming down the left wing and Cheechoo, coming down the right side, decided to join the jump into the middle with his centre. Normally, this might be crashing the net, but in this case he completely abandoned the weak side and so when Smith's shot came off Mason's pads and kicked perfectly to the far slot, there was no $3M winger there to bang it into the open net. Dumb stuff like that. For that amount of money, a guy that brings nothing to the table but hard work...brings nothing to the table. Wake up call to not a 56-goal scorer, but perhaps a 20-goal scorer? Or someone that can skate better than Brad Marsh? Anybody home, McFly? My patience with the Cheechoo train has left the station.

Wake up call #2: Chris Kelly

Another obvious one here. I'm not as disappointed in him just because expectations are so low to begin with. Kelly kills penalties and backchecks, wins a few faceoffs, and keeps getting credit as a good 'locker room guy'. But remember a few years ago when he stepped onto the top line and basically earned his entire $8M contract in the month that Spezza was out? No NHL player's hands should be so awful that they can't hit the corner of the net once in a while instead of always shooting it into the chest of the goalie. While his teammates like Regin are running with the added icetime, it is discouraging to see Kelly remain on his low level plateau and fail to fill a void that he once did. Step it up, Kells.

Wake up call #3: Filip Kuba

What is with this guy? Last year, we knew that there was no physical dimension to his game but he still had the ability to move the puck up the ice and quarterback the powerplay. Now, he's constantly out of position in the defensive zone, he's getting pushed around more than Karlsson, and his shots are going off forwards' shins. I won't even bother with the salary argument because that is obvious. I will bother to point out that Kuba is the lesser defenceman paired with Karlsson right now, which is disappointing. Lucky for us, the kid is stepping up to balance the demise of #17. I'd like to think that Kuba, if he is truly healthy from the wrist/hand injury, can't be that different than the solid, reliable puck mover he was last year.

Wake up call #4: Ryan Shannon

This was a tough one. You hear his name a lot during a typical broadcast because he skates hard and gets into the corners. He's strong with the pickpocket and he benefits from lining up with Kovalev and upstart Regin right now. So then why is he stuck at 13 points and close to a team worst minus-9? Shannon is not on this team for his magical playmaking, he's here because he's fast and he's responsible. He isn't as gifted as his two linemates, but he should be the one hanging back to help the D out when Regin and Kovalev are wearing offence. Shannon should still feel like a kid getting a chance with the big club, learn to take advantage of his icetime, and help us keep pucks out of our zone. Spezza is back next week and while the obvious out is Zach Smith (let's be honest, this is exactly who it will be), it isn't unfair to name Shannon in the short list.

Okay, the one thing I hate about posting this is that it is so lame to write something negative in the middle of a five-game winning streak. I guess I just want to see all the pieces moving in the same direction. But I don't want to take away from a very impressive five-game winning streak right now. We have some tough games coming up against the Bruins, the Devils, and the Penguins, too. If the Chicago win was a barometer against the best team in hockey, these next three will hopefully validate it for us. We've struggled with all three teams for most of the season, so hopefully the momentum will keep cranking.

Upcoming discussions: The Volchenkov conundrum, the Pascal/Elliott conundrum, and the "let's hope Sweden stinks in the Olympics so Alfie doesn't get worn out" conundrum.

In the meantime, did the wake up calls ring true, was one of the unwarranted, or was someone left off?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Return of the Cavalry

Alfie has been back for three games and Kuba for two. Mendes is saying the Milan Michalek is ready to come back to the lineup Thursday night against the Blues and Spezza might be ready to go for the Bruins rematch on Saturday afternoon. On paper, this sounds like tremendous news, right? I sure think so.

What I'm waiting for is the inevitable groan of some casual fans that say that we're 'on a roll right now' and that these guys are going to mess up the chemistry. In their argument, they'll highlight other teams that lost a star player to injury, went on a winning streak in his absence, and then hit the skids when their star returned. In fact, didn't that happen a while back with the Leafs and Sundin in the postseason?

This situation is different. It is different because we aren't just getting back one top end player; we're getting back our three best forwards. One of them, our captain, has already shown how he can lift the team to another level. Michalek and Spezza both add a missing element - a constant offensive threat.

I'm not trying to knock the current group. Guys like Shannon, Regin, Fisher, Neil, and Ruutu have truly risen to the occasion with the added icetime. Sure, they stunk to high hell in the five game losing streak, but the past four games have been some of our best displays of hockey this season as far as team fundamentals go.

That being said, I think you can make the argument that these role players are really just playing out of their skates and exceeding expectations. Their pace isn't sustainable over the long term. Sure, a player like Peter Regin is blossoming into a really strong offensive player, as seen in his highlight reel goal against the Hawks. But where some fans think that the team has built this long-term, sustainable chemistry that shouldn't be tinkered with, I just can't buy that. The kids are alright, but the stars are critical. Let me ask you this - does anybody think that this group, sans Spezza and Michalek (and to a smaller extent, Snoopy), can make the playoffs? It is safe to say that Spezza and Michalek together are huge assets to the next 31 games.

As for the chemistry, Spezza is a giggly dude that has been around here for his entire career. He isn't here for leadership, so it isn't like someone has filled that void for him. He isn't really this stud two-way forward that will lose icetime there, either. He brings something that is unmatched and that is his second-to-none playmaking skill. Michalek - he brings a speed and a set of hands that we don't have in combination in any other player. Shannon is fast but doesn't have those hands. Regin has the hands, but can't match Michalek's speed. Get my point? There aren't chemistry issues when the returning players are filling a void in terms of the role they play.

As for goalies, that is a discussion for another day. When Snoopy gets healthy, does he just skate into the crease, or does he have to win the job back?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Goalie Contraversy? Part 2...

Good morning Sens fans! And a great morning it is! As you likely know, I've been cautiously optimistic all season about the Sens success. I have faith, but I've felt (and this likely won't change) a queezy uneasiness approaching just about every game this season...and tonight's game was certainly no different. Ottawa's one of the hottest teams of the week and coming back home versus the mighty Hawks (not to be confused with the mighty Ducks, freakin' Disney...get it?) still left me excited but weary. But hey, what do ya say, everything's ok!

Despite getting badly outshout, Ottawa looked amazing versus arguably the best team in the NHL (and I would argue they are). Another great all around game. All lines plugging, the D looked solid, even the PP scored! (though they made up for it by giving up a shorty, but I digress). It was a great game. And in true ASB tradition there's no game recap, but I will highlight the obvious...

- Brian Elliot - save of the year? I don't like to give that type of acknowledgement for such a desperationally weird stop. But hey, he did everything he could to keep the biscuit out of the basket, and it worked. As lucky as it was, it was truly an athletically awesome save. Thanks BE Keeper! (more on goaltending as you keep reading...)
- Solid all around scoring feels great, doesn't it? Neil made some big plays, despite a scary trip to the locker room. I'm a big Neil fan, and I'm glad he's here, especially on night's like tonight.
- More for secondary scoring as Peter Regin is apparently a Vikings fan, listening to Brett Favre's celebratory "Pants on the Ground" post game chant. He left ex-67 Brian Campbell's pants on the ground with an unreal highlight wrap-around grape. He's either a Favre or American Idol fan. We know that Fisher takes the latter, and I'd prefer Regin's the former.
- Karlsson - as much as we've dogged the rook all year he finally seems to be coming around. He had likely his best game of the campaign and has played well in the recent winning steak. Hope this is a sign of the future.
- Daniel Alfredsson - who does this guy think he is? Answer - my hero? Ding ding ding! Correct! Talk about stating the obvious, but wow! Like most of the Sens Army, I've been a hardcore fan of this guy since his rookie campaign. Does anyone remember his short, early season hold out in the late 90's? Cause it doesn't matter. This guy is still the most underrated player in the league, in my opinion. The proof is in the pudding. The pudding being the sweet flavour of a convincing 4 game win steak, albeit only 3 of which he was in the line up. But still, this is a completely different team that we were writing off a mere week ago. I can go on and on, but I have to work. He makes me proud to be a Sens fan, and I'm a-ok if his dominating importance is out little secret.

So there's the obvious, here's the talking point. An infuriating losing streak made us go bananas over everything, especially goaltending. Then, bad breaks lead us to giving Mike "Don't call me Marty" Brodeur 2 straight starts resulting in 2 straight wins. Then what? We (well some), and other professional insiders and pundits, proclaim Brodeur is the solution to our woes. Check, check, is this thing on? Let's not get ahead of ourselves people. Let's be happy, but let's remain on Earth. Going into the game versus Boston, I was really looking forward to seeing how Brodeur would fare. Then, as the powers of this season would have it, they challenge us once again by casting a flu over Brodeur...and it's back to Elliot. Last season, Elliot was our savoir, then it was Snoopy, then Elliot again, then Leclaire, then Brodeur, and not it's back to Elliot. And he snaps a deep losing streak to beat Boston. The next night against Chicago - he gets a big W! Wowowow!

This roller coaster is fun, isn't it? Especially cause it gives us so much to talk about. Such as...

1. Is Elliot's solid play these past two games the result of Brodeur's strong play? Or, was it the winding down of a road trip, a home game, and a little less pressure after a couple of big wins?

2. Who do you go with for Ottawa's Thursday night bout, at home against the Blues? Both Brodeur and Elliot have played posted two recent solid starts. Elliot most recently, but is he due for a loss? Then again, can Brodeur go 4-0?

3. Is Snoopy still our #1 when he gets back? This question will be easier if Elliot and/or Brodeur post some/any losses, but if not, do you give it to Snoopy???

My humble take? Start Elliot versus St. Louis. He's the hot hand right now and Brodeur is not experienced. Hold your breath and hope for Ottawa to play has they have the past two game with Ells between the pipes. His recent success had nothing to do with Brodeur, but because he's a pro and he had some time to clear his head. Of course, it doesn't help that Alfie's changed the way this team plays. Finally, Snoopy is still our #1. You have to give him the ball. If he fails yet again, we'll take it from there. Strong teams rely on backups to give them wins in dire straights. And despite his recent struggles, Clouston needs to show Pascal that he's still the go to and there's confidence behind him.

That's what I got. What do you got?

Finally, I'd ask for you to wish my good friend and co-blogger Duff a healthy recovery from, ahem, a cold. As you may know, Duff - an Ottawatian - now resides in South Carolina. However, a recent 4 day jaunt to Ottawa's bitter, yet mild-for-January, weather have left him with the sniffles. Hopefully he can rest and recover, despite the shivering 16 degree temperature in the dirty South. He'll rag me for this, but I'm sure that's just the congestion talking.

But back to the real deal. Alfie for Mayor! Regin for, well, honourary something-or-other! Has Karlsson earned your respect? And what do we do between the pipes?!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Hastily Made Sens Blog from YOW

My flight from Ottawa back to SC is delayed for fog, so here are my random thoughts on the past week in Hockey Country, or whatever we call it these days:

- Amazing how much can change in a week, eh? This time last week, we were being handed our lunches from the Southeast Division with no sign of an end. This week, we're fresh off two huge wins against bubble teams, our Captain is back with a vengeance, and our highest paid player is ahead of schedule in his recovery. Spezza might be a week away, Kuba is supposedly playing this afternoon, and Michalek is 'very close'. When it rains, it pours but when the sun is shining, she shines bright on our Sens!

- Two great road games last week. We never tried to do too much (although the Karlsson pinch late in MTL was ill-advised) and good goaltending helped. I love the 'back to basics' games that we pull out to climb up from a funk. It really is a shame that we can't play basic, fundamental hockey 82 times. Ebbs and flows of a very long season, I guess.

- On the captain: is this guy amazing or what? The entire team plays differently when he's in the lineup. Not just his linemates, but the entire team. That is a testament to his importance and a knock on the rest of them. It is a few years away, but I will be an inconsolable mess when Alfie hangs 'em up. Who is next in command for the torch? Spetz? Fish? Someone new?

- I love the way Brodeur is playing, but I hate the way some fans are ready to put him as the #1 guy. Can't we just 'ride the hot goalie' without applying ranks to all of them? He's been given a great opportunity and he's blowing away expectations. Let's be thankful for his performance, but let's not think for a moment that he'll be here once Pascal recovers from his concussion/bruised ego. It isn't a contract thing, it is that Pascal is the best goalie we have and he's in a funk. Luongo starts slow, Marty slips up, it happens to every goalie. Pascal's problem is he has the added heat of a fanbase desperate for a goalie that doesn't suck...ever. We don't allow goalies to have a bad game without opening the debate. I'm not sure if Pascal really is THE guy, but he's our best right now and he'll be back between the pipes when his head is on straight. That means that Mike Brodeur, for all his wonderful efforts today, will be riding the buses again soon this year. And no, Don Cherry doesn't really have our best interests in mind...

- If we can play on the road like we did last week all the time, then that might neutralize one of my five reasons why we're gonna come up short of the playoffs. I love that we're winning, but for today, I'll stand by my prediction and hope that the boys will continue to prove me wrong. I miss the playoff badly and boy, oh boy would it be awesome if this lunchpail, ragtag group can squeak in.

Thoughts on Mike Brodeur and our recent road success?