Thursday, October 8, 2009
All Guts, No Glory - Sens 3 Isles 2
Folks, the Senators are back.
Maybe not the Senators you've all become accustomed to in the high-octane 2000's, but instead, the edgy, hard-working and high spirited teams of 97 and 98 when they were fighting every game for respect... and a playoff spot.
On a night when it was clear that the high-end skill guys like Alex Kovalev, Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek were still trying to work the rust off, it was (again) the lesser known soldiers who forced coach Cory Clouston to play them more and more as the game went on.
It all started with the "Big Rig" Chris Phillips blasting Islander Tim Jackman down with a hard hit in the first period.
Then, Anton Volchenkov delivered John Tavares the cliche "Welcome to the NHL" moment when he absolutely crushed the rookie near the boards.
The tone was set.
Que up the Chris Neil - Peter Regin - Jonathan Cheechoo line. They not only got the Senators first goal, they dominated the game.
When Matt Carkner scored in the second period to give the team a 2 goal lead and after Pascal Leclaire absolutely stoned Tavares with a mind-bending pad save in the same time frame, it pushed the fans over into downright giddiness. They were actually giving Leclaire a standing ovation, but you got the sense that they were just releasing about 2 years of pent up energy and nervousness.
Playing before them was a team that was giving it their all, awkward mistakes and all, and the fans were feeding off of it. Big time.
If this was last year, Martin Gerber would have let in that Tavares goal. The Senators would have been the ones picking themselves off the ice after a nasty hit at the blueline. The fans would have been waiting for the next thing to go wrong.
But tonight it seemed like they were finally expecting things to go right for a change.
And they were given that chance because Cory Clouston has changed the attitude and philosophy of the team.
Whoever is playing well is going to play a lot. And it was not just about the minutes. In fact, neither Neil, Cheechoo or Regin played more than 14 minutes, but it was the timing of their shifts. Clouston played them at important times in the game, when he needed a goal and when he needed to keep goals out.
Maybe it's that minor league mentality. Clouston comes from the AHL, a league filled with guys busting their asses to make it to the big show. That's the culture and Clouston seems to have brought that attitude to the NHL. He knows these types of players - guys like Neil, Carkner, Shean Donovan et al.
He trusts them just as much as he trusts the established NHL guys like Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher. Even skilled players who have put in their time in the minors like Regin and Ryan Shannon get Clouston's respect, and that's a big difference from the philosophies of past coaches like John Paddock and Craig Hartsburg who either played their established stars into the ground or adapted a passive system built on trying not to screw up.
Clouston's teams go for it, grinders and superstars alike.
And could it be more fitting than the team's ultimate grinder, Mike Fisher, to get that overtime goal?
Funny thing is, I think the fans were expecting the Senators to win once it got to overtime.
And that might be the most refreshing change of them all.
Black Aces 3 Stars
1. Chris Neil
2. Pascal Leclaire
3. Matt Carkner
Honourable mentions: Mike Fisher, Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Phillips.
Matt Carkner is starting to remind me of another Ottawa Senator from a long time ago who snuck up on everyone to become a fan favourite. And that player is Lance Pitlick. Remember him Sens fans? Carkner is bigger and more mobile than Pitlick ever was, but it's all in the attitude. Pitlick was a guy who toiled in the AHL with the Hershey Bears for a long time, on top of a full career at college. Pitlick was also a guy who kept it extremely simple - put pucks off the glass and put guys into the boards.
Not to be a Don Cherry sycophant or anything, but there's something about that rugged Canadian type of player that every Stanley Cup team seems to have one or two of. Ottawa has had a few of these guys up front (Fisher, Neil and even Alfie from "Moosejaw, Sweden") but it's been awhile since they've had one on the back end who can play over 15 minutes a game.
There's a danger in overhyping a player like Carkner, but in Ottawa, with his breed so rare, it's becoming a revelation to see what they've been missing......... Back in 1997, my old roomate Andy Sheath got a job at the Corel Centre and from downtown would take a bus as close as he could and then walk a ways through fields and snow. One day a pick-up truck stopped at the side of the road and waved him over. "Geez buddy, you must be freezing your balls off! Are you headed to the rink?" It was Lance Pitlick. When Andy (who was not a hockey fan) got home, he asked me if I've ever heard of a guy named Pitlick? "Umm...yah dude." Apparently Pitlick was on his way to practice at the time and didn't think twice about picking up some grubby looking guy freezing his balls off in the middle of winter. Now that's character......
If bench chatter is any indication, it looks like Carkner and rookie Erik Karlsson have hit it off. At least twice in the first two periods, the cameras centred on the two laughing it up and giving each other fist bumps. Then again, Carkner seems to be making everyone laugh. He had the trainer cracking up on the bench after his second period goal............
Alex Kovalev started slow again but by the 3rd period, he was starting to control the play. This guy is going to be a great player for this team, but you might have to wait while warms up first..... Alex Picard almost took Alfie's head off with an errant deflection in the 2nd period. Luckily the puck hit the captain in the shoulder and he didn't have to make a trip to the dentist like Milan Michalek did after the game in Toronto....... A guy who never gets enough respect, from myself as well, is Chris Phillips. The guy plays hard every single night and we just take it for granted now that he'll put in a solid, if unspectacular game. For a guy who goes up against the other teams best forwards every single night for the past 5 or 6 seasons, he makes very few mistakes. He's Ottawa's own version of Glen Wesley and should be a career Senator..... Speaking of contracts, let's hope Bryan Murray doesn't waste a second getting Volchenkov extended before this summer. Just give the guy what he needs and put it in the rear view mirror. He may not play for a long time due to his style of game, but he'll be your rock for 4 or 5 more years at the least......
Does anyone really care that Ilya Zubov has made a trade request? After Dany Heatley, does it even register on the Richter Scale? It will be tough for Binghamton, but not for anyone else..... A lot of missed calls on the night, most of the obstruction variety. The NHL has changed their Director of Officiating to Terry Gregson this season. You just hope that the standards don't start to slip. But then again, you got the sense that the refs were trying to atone for missing the puck hitting the mesh just before Regin scored the first goal of the game. It should have been disallowed and maybe they gave the Isles some leeway after that. But there's no excuse for letting Doug Weight hit Volchenkov from behind right in front of your eyes......
Got to say it: That was Jonathan Cheechoo's best game in a Senators jersey by far. He seems to be getting more involved at the front of the net and that's a great sign. That's where he's scored all his goals so far in his career. For such a likable character, you can only hope that he keeps going in the right direction. He has a chance to be a fan favourite down the line here.