At times it felt like the Senators had to climb a mountain to beat the Carolina Hurricanes tonight, but thanks to Mike Fisher and a little lady luck, they ended their short but miserable losing streak, winning a close affair 3-2.
Even more interesting was the line switching that Cory Clouston pulled off once the Senators got off to another slow start. And he even took a big risk by breaking up his best line to do it. But it paid off big time.
Some were calling the Fisher-Winchester-Foligno trio the "fourth line" going into the game, but Clouston didn't take long to yank Winchester and insert Chris Neil on that wing, breaking up the best line the Senators have had so far this season (Winchester dropped down to play with Chris Kelly and Jarkko Ruutu - and even they didn't miss a beat). The new Fisher line then went on to almost single-handedly win the game for the Senators.
Fisher just took over the game in the second period and Clouston kept throwing his line out on to the ice. The first goal Fisher scored was the kind of garbage goal (it flopped over the head of Cam Ward and looped into the net) that the Senators needed to get going.
With a little of the scoring burden off their shoulders, the "first line" of Spezza-Alfredsson-Michalek began to look better and Michalek finished off a highlight reel passing play spearheaded by Alfie. If it wasn't for the incredible play of Ward, the Senators would have racked five goals by the end of the night.
If Clouston keeps the lines the way they finished in this game, the Senators may have finally found the right combinations to roll four units. Going into tonight, the Spezza line looked terrible and Fisher was missing in action.
Even the second unit power-play scored, with Kovalev looking more at home on the right side half-boards. The first unit was still way too hesitant to shoot but you have to think they are going to get it right fairly soon.
The defensive pairing of Sergei Gonchar and Chris Phillips was rock solid except for a two minute stretch in the third where they got scored on twice. They looked very comfortable together and it would be a shame for Clouston to break them up. But that leaves the rest of the defense units looking shaky, with Erik Karlsson still struggling with his confidence.
And we haven't even mentioned the goaltending catastrophe that struck the Senators early in the game when Pascal Leclaire went down with an innocuous looking leg injury. The city as a whole must have groaned at the sight of Leclaire limping off the ice but Brian Elliott came in and did a good job for the most part.
It won't do any good to speculate on what's going to happen in nets going forward, but Leclaire just seems doomed here in Ottawa. There's no other way to put it.
Regardless, the Senators have a chance to go into Montreal and steal one on Saturday, as the Habs will be on the second night of a back-to-back after playing the Sabres on the road on Friday.
It's not been pretty to watch, but this Senators season is lurching forward and getting more interesting every game.
Black Aces Senators 3 Stars
1. Mike Fisher
2. Nick Foligno
3. Milan Michalek
Honourable Mentions: Brian Elliott, Chris Neil, Chris Kelly, Sergei Gonchar
Clouston needs to stop these game-day goalie announcements (not that he may even have a choice if Leclaire is really hurt). He’s needlessly freaking people out daily by making sure it's always the first thing sportswriters want to know. Nothing produces a media frenzy like a good mystery. Who’s gonna start tonight? Only Clouston has the answers and he’s lording it above everyone. It’s needless, as was his rip job on Leclaire after the Washington game. In Ottawa, it often helps to dampen speculation, not inflame it. It’s like riding a wild horse when having to deal with the local media and fanbase. You need to tame it to get anywhere. In a market like Carolina, you got a donkey that you sometimes need to prod to get some interest. Two different animals, two different approaches. Ripping players publicly might work in Carolina where the only pressure on the team comes from players and management but not in Ottawa where even infant babies know that Ottawa’s goaltending is a nightmare from which they cannot wake..…
It was quite fun listening to the outright disdain TSN colour-man Pierre McGuire had for Alexei Kovalev throughout tonight's game, something he shares in common with many NHL journalists. It got me wondering if there was another current player out there who has taken more abuse from journalists than Kovalev. There are, but not many. If I had to make a top 5 list of the most despised hockey players by the media, it would look something like this:
1. Sean Avery - I'm convinced a lot of media guys would actually like to fight him if they were allowed to. Even Eric Duhatschek.
2. Alex Kovalev - Russians already face an unfair bias (still) in NHL circles but Kovalev gets called a slacker more often than Spicoli from Ridgemont High.
3. Olli Jokinen - Some TV guys blow into a howling rage just at the sight of his bald dome.
4. Patrick Kaleta - He's the new brat but already inspires a gagging reflex among most scribes.
5. Mikhail Grabovski - Okay, even I would swing at this guy. He's the new Petr Klima.
Here we go again department: Get ready to endure another season of obsessive focus on borderline hits and endless cries for an end to “senseless violence” in hockey. All. Season. Long.
Some people are aghast that Niklas Hjamlarsson only got two games for a “hit from behind” on Sabre Jason Pominville and have been in an apoplexy ever since, backing Sabre’s goalie Ryan Miller’s rant on the need for a “culture change” in the NHL. There definitely does need to be a culture change when it comes to deliberate blindside hits to the head (fait accompli thanks to a recent rule change), but why is everyone so up in arms over the Hjamlarsson hit?
He hit Pominville on the shoulder (okay, on the back of the shoulder) in an attempt to knock him off the puck (which was headed to Pominville but never got there). Those checks happen every game in hockey but because Pominville was poorly positioned away from the boards, his head hits the glass and the whole hockey world begins wringing its hands anew. If you watch the replay, Pominville even looks up and see’s Hjamlarsson coming from his side. Watch it again. Pominville made the mistake of thinking he wasn’t going to get hit. Evidently he forgot he was in a hockey game and not in the NBA. Hjamlarsson got a game misconduct. But I'm not convinced he needed to be suspended on a borderline hockey play. A game misconduct was punishment enough. It’s not like they pass those out like candy. It actually means something, even if they don’t lose salary because of it.
What James Wisniewski did was much worse and cheapened the league much more than an unintentional injury did. Maybe it’s time for the handwringers to just accept that hockey players are going to occasionally get hurt playing a game they are more than generously compensated and fully insured for and that there’s no sense getting so bent out of shape because there will likely be another incident tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day.
The same sort of bleeding heart crisis occurred after Calgary Flames enforcer Raitis Ivanans was hurt in a fight last week. Bob McKenzie went on TSN and wondered why it needed to happen at all. As insignificant as that may seem, that McKenzie editorial really signaled the “new normal”, in that there is going to be a serious push to eliminate fighting in the years to come.
After all, once you start penalizing intentional hits to the head, there is no logic that would allow fighting to remain a part of the game for much longer. Once you start defining a clear line about hits to the head, you have to face the question of fighting in the NHL, because that’s what fighting is all about – deliberate hits to the head, blindside or not. I’m sure opponents of fighting are emboldened by recent NHL rule changes because it allows them to address the issue from the backdoor instead of calling for an immediate end to fighting, which usually falls on deaf ears. Once you establish a benchmark against hits to the head, logic dictates that fighting will be up next for a major re-evaluation and eventual ban. It’s inevitable. For some that will be a victory, and certainly the NHL will be a much safer place if that happens. But it won’t be the same NHL we’ve all known up till now.
People will call me a cave-man on this issue, and I was called that a few times last year when I opposed a distinct rule to deliberate hits to the head. The eventual rule change was something I could live with because it stressed the illegality of the “blindside, lateral” nature of the hits that no one likes to see, myself included. If that rule change eliminates the type of over-the-top hits that have endangered the careers of Marc Savard and others, then it has been a success. What I am worried about are the unintended consequences that the rule change could set in motion. It’s too soon to really see the impact but already people are up in arms over what has up to now been a normal hockey play. The Hjamlarsson hit wasn’t even an intentional hit to the head and already there is talk of the need for a “culture change”.
Next up on the agenda: using Nerf pucks. The “Culture Change” industry rolls on….