Monday, March 22, 2010
Out Of The Wilderness
That's the funny thing about prolonged streaks, both winning and losing.
The team and its fans are either sky high with confidence or rock bottom with the burden of unrelieved angst and pessimism.
But like all streaks, if you look closely, sometimes you can see the little signs that tell you it's about to break, for good or for bad.
Take Ottawa's big winning run just before the Olympic break. The wins were piling up, but near the end, defensive mistakes were popping up but because the luck was flowing so freely, the little flaws never seemed to hurt the team.
The same can be said for the post-Olympic losing streak.
Not many, including myself, could see through the haze of failure to notice that, slowly, the Senators were starting to turn their game around, even if it was at the speed of an ocean liner changing course halfway across the Atlantic.
They were going through a massive offensive dry spell but racked up 3 goals against Atlanta on Thursday and 4 goals against the Dallas Stars on Saturday. Both losses were huge letdowns but at least they were trending up in the goal scoring department.
Yet most of the worry was directed at the goaltending situation, and the Senators hobbled into Montreal on Monday night with seemingly everything on the line. A loss would have dropped them below the Habs in the East and left them open to a do or die game against Philly on Tuesday.
Who could have foreseen that Brian Elliott, only slightly less tarnished than the now completely counted out Pascal Leclaire, would be able to throw down a shutout in this kind of hostile environment?
Count me as one who would have laughed at the suggestion before the opening faceoff.
Elliott was stellar but he was given plenty of help by the Senators penalty kill and a godsend power play goal by Erik Karlsson, who made amends after a tough outing against the Stars.
From all reports by those who watch this team every day in practice and on airplanes, the guys are a tight knit group who support each other and still believe in themselves, despite the utter panic they cause with their wildly uneven play during the season.
There was no wild celebration when the 2-0 result became official. In fact, the players looked collected and somewhat reserved when crowding around Elliott after the buzzer, save for a few well deserved face washes amongst the younger guys.
It looked like business as usual from a team that has learned there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, even when everyone around them has figured them for also-rans.
As they left the ice, Chris Phillips, who battles the same way every night - at full tilt - was there to give his customary glove taps after a win, and suddenly, the Senators odds of not only making the playoffs, but avoiding the dreaded matchup with either Pittsburgh or Washington, look a whole lot better going into a home game against a Philly team with no number one goalie and their top scorer on the shelf with a broken foot.
But don't look to me for the answers. I was ready to write them off myself. I'm just as fascinated as the rest of you as to how this storyline will play out.
Black Aces Senators 3 Stars
1. Brian Elliott
2. Erik Karlsson
3. Daniel Alfredsson
Honourable mentions: Andy Sutton, Matt Cullen, Peter Regin and Jason Spezza.
The 1992 NHL Entry Draft seems like a long time ago but tonight in Montreal, there was Roman Hamrlik still going strong for his 5th team, having played well over a thousand games in the league. Not many people remember, but according to Roy MacGregor's essential book on the first year Ottawa Senators, "Road Games", Hamrlik was highly coveted by general manager Mel "Ottawa Apologises" Bridgman and the rest of his Ottawa staff. Hamrlik was not only a potential star defenseman, he also fit into the Senators marketing theme of the "Roman Warrior". As it happened, Hamrlik was Tampa GM Phil Esposito's first choice and Bridgman took Alexei Yashin 2nd overall. While this doesn't have the same cache as Detroit being forced to pick Steve Yzerman 4th overall after their desired pick, Pat Lafontaine was snagged by the Islanders 3rd overall in the 1983 Entry Draft, Bridgman made the right choice in the end. Despite Yashin's turbulent Sens career, for a while, Yashin was one of the best centres in the league and was a big part of those first three seasons (97, 98, 99) the Sens made the playoffs. Hamrlik has been steady but not exactly worthy of his number one status. But the fact is, he remains in the league while Yashin is a pariah, exiled to the KHL. So who would you pick if you had the chance all over again? I'd still take Yashin......
It's been awhile since I've seen a player hit himself in the head with his own stick on purpose (if ever) but that's what Matt Carkner did after giving the puck away in the 1st period. Hopefully, being named "Mr. Hottawa Senator" hasn't gone to his head. I've said it before, but Carks hasn't been the same guy since getting KO'd by Colton Orr before the Olympic break. He'd never admit it, but I think his confidence was stung by that very public defeat. Still, Carkner is a great find as a sixth defenseman and I expect him to be a character player for this team for a few years yet..... Wonder what Alex Kovalev said to former linemate Tomas Plekanek to make the Hab break out laughing after a close play at the Montreal net? Maybe he wondered out loud why he ever left Montreal in the first place...... Once in a while, when I'm unable to make up my mind on the game prediction in the Ottawa Citizen panel, I'll ask my two and a half month old son for some advice. Usually, I'll get some sort of hand signal, but when I asked him if the Senators would beat Dallas on Saturday, he let out an enormously loud fart. I didn't know if that was a yes or a no. I chose Ottawa and lost. Now I know......
However this unfathomable season ends up in the history books, it's become clear to me that Bryan Murray made two great moves in picking up Matt Cullen and Andy Sutton. Throughout the losing streak, these two guys have been among their better players and both should at least end up having conversations with Murray about a contract to play in Ottawa beyond this year. They'll both be hard to fit under the cap, maybe impossible, but it would be worth moving Filip Kuba to keep Sutton and someone up front to keep Cullen. They're that good, if you ask me..... Speaking of Sutton, we all knew he was a physical defenseman, but he has been lethal as a big body against the boards. He's delivered at least three massive, highlight bodychecks since donning the black and red and tonight he crushed Benoit Pouliot in the second period. Later on he bulldozed one of the Kostitsyns in the third. And for once, he didn't get called for a phantom penalty.......
Would it really be so bad if Ottawa ended up in 6th place and played the Sabres in the first round, as some have already pointed out? To me, the only two teams they must avoid at all costs are the Pens and the Caps. The Senators have beaten Martin Brodeur before. They can do it again. With complete respect for the future Hall of Famer, it's clear that Brodeur is not as infallible as he once was and it brings to mind the last two years of Patrick Roy's career where he took that little step back, which robbed him of his aggressive edge. That being said, Brodeur has so much experience that he is still capable of backstopping his team to a Stanley Cup. Never count out a winner..... I don't know this for a fact, but I'm willing to bet linesman across the league share one thing in common: they must hate it that after every whistle, the player nearest the puck feels the need to scoop it up and juggle it with his stick so the linesman can grab it out of the air. Just watch the linesman. All they want is to get that damn puck and get it to the faceoff dot. But they have to hesitantly wait while Joe Blow fumbles around for 5 seconds trying to look slick...... Two hairstyles separated at birth: Dallas coach Marc Crawford and veteran ref Kerry Fraser (who had to start wearing a helmet after the lockout. It still doesn't look right to see him out there with that lid.) .......
I'm not a huge fan of modern goalie masks for the reason that they are so detailed, they rarely look as good on TV as the old, simple, bold designs. But I have to admit the Stars Kari Lehtonen has a real beauty with his ode to Clint Eastwood, and in particular, his popular character The Man With No Name from the epic Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns.