Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Volchenkov Speaks

A revealing, and must-read interview with Anton Volchenkov from Puck Daddy. Sounds like he's ready to move on if he needs to:

You spent seven years in Ottawa. You can say that the Senators nurtured you as a player. How will you feel if you have to leave Ottawa?

I think I was nurtured as a player in Russia. And here I was given a chance to play. Of course I have to admit that it is going to be sad if I have to leave Ottawa. But this is hockey. It doesn't always happen the way you want it. I am not a fan of changing teams, but... But if I am in such situation, we will have to decide. But it will all have to happen later.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Fallout Begins ...

It’s moron time in Ottawa.

And by moron time, I mean the annual week after the Senators are eliminated when the city’s vocal group of reactionary fans start calling for massive changes, facts or rational thought be damned.

And we won’t let rational thought get in the way of a good radio show. The epicenter of reactionism is dependably the Team 1200 year end post-mortem show that usually goes all night long after the last game where callers manic rants have become the stuff of legend in this city.

The next, and most permanent stop is the mid-day show, "Sportscall", and today’s first summer-time edition was no disappointment as the hosts were doing their best Lowell Green or Rush Limbaugh imitations, poking the hornet’s nest of the lowest common denominator fan by espousing the most reactionary moves Bryan Murray could possibly do – letting Anton Volchenkov walk, trading Jason Spezza and the need to “go in a more clear direction”, whatever that means.

In their defense, the hosts of "Sportscall" probably feel they have to push topics that get people’s blood boiling in order to generate interest in what they’re doing. Sometimes I do the same thing here at Black Aces. If I sit on the fence, people don’t read as much. If I really come down hard on one side of an argument, the readership gets more interested, even though they might (and usually do) disagree. I realize that’s how sports radio and blogging sometimes works.

Yet one only has to take a listen to the afternoon “Healthy Scratches” show where the hosts are far less negative and inflammatory than the "Sportscall" guys and still manage to be a more interesting and informative show – by far, I might add. Steve Lloyd and Jason York can be critical too but do so without relying on clichés and the fans who call in seem to be more knowledgeable because they know that a simple “Spezza sucks” rant is not going to pass the smell test with these guys. Go figure.

Suprisingly, the fans weren’t gripping as hard today as they have in years past. There was the usual Spezza backlash as I predicted not long ago, but quite a few callers and e-mailers over the course of the day seemed to grasp reality and expressed patience going forward, and even a little gratitude for what was a short but exciting season where the Senators largely turned around their recent reputation as an underachieving, fractious group of ego laden stars.

The real fans at the game recognized as much, because they gave the team a heartfelt standing ovation at the end of the hard fought loss to the superior Penguins. How many of those same fans sat through "Sportscall" on Monday and suddenly turned into bitter dimwits is anyone’s guess, but it was at least nice to hear a few rebel voices in the darkness talking about the positives.

Because in this town, being positive about your hockey team makes you Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” – a true loner.


It was interesting to note Bryan Murray’s revealing comments today as outlined by Citizen reporter James Gordon.

He really seemed to leave the door open to letting Volchenkov walk and test the free-agent market. I still don’t (or refuse to?) believe he will let Volchenkov get away from him, but I’m not as truly convinced as I once was after the comments in the Gordon piece by Murray. Are these just fighting words used for contract negotiations or is this a trial balloon being floated by Murray to gauge how fans will really react to losing their best defenseman. After all, most hockey people still shake their heads at the decision to let Zdeno Chara walk. It won't be much different in Volchenkov's case, yet ... here we go again.

I think it would be a horrendous mistake to let the Russian warrior leave this city, but there’s no reason to get really worked up about it now in late April, as July 1st is a long ways away and so much can change between now and then. A lot of other contracts could and should be juggled around to keep Volchenkov in Ottawa if that’s what it takes. He’s the best at what he does. That’s exactly the type of player you need to keep. One Volchenkov is worth three average players and the pay is probably equal in either scenario.

To quote Quint from the best movie ever made, Jaws: "But you've gotta make up your minds. If you want to stay alive, then ante up. If you want to play it cheap .... be on welfare the whole winter."

The other big issue was, of course, Jason Spezza and the ongoing backlash that seems to target him everytime something goes wrong in this city, whether it's politics, sports or the weather.

Murray summed it up quite nicely here and I think it’s spot on:

"When you're playing against a Sidney Crosby or an (Evgeni) Malkin, two of the top players in the league, you're judged accordingly," Murray said. "Right now, Jason turns the puck over, we all point the finger, but when he makes a great pass to Matt Cullen on a five-on-three for a goal, we love him.

"So he is what he is. You accept it," Murray said. "We hope that as he continues to play this game that he'll do little things a little different and better, but he's a good player, and you don't go find that kind of player very often in the National Hockey League."

Murray is right.

You can trade Spezza but you better get a number one centre in return, or you have zero chance of doing anything in this league. ZERO.

And the only number one centre you can get in return for Spezza is going to be one who has all sorts of baggage or doubts surrounding him – in essence, someone else’s problem.

Spezza was great this year when he was healthy and has the ability to put up 100 points in this league. He’s a cornerstone whether you like it or not. He doesn’t have to be the next Daniel Alfredsson like so many erroneously claim. He just needs to be Jason Spezza. He needs to be the player he was when he was healthy this season. He’s a huge reason this team made the playoffs in the first place.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Good Night Irene

Another tumultuous Ottawa Senators season has come to a close, but at least they went out with dignity.

Down 3-1 in the series rather quickly, this never-say-die team won a gut-testing triple overtime game in enemy territory to stay alive and it took another overtime period for the Penguins to bring them down Saturday night in Game 6.

We'll let the blood dry before making any sweeping conclusions and predictions going forward for this team, but while Senators fans let the verdict sink in over the remainder of the weekend, let us say that this team has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

This season was a resounding success when you consider the state they were in when this whole thing started in Madison Square Garden on October 3rd, 2009.

They were coming off two somewhat disastrous seasons where everyone questioned their character, their dressing room and their management. Many trusted pundits picked them to miss the playoffs again this season after they were forced to unload their top goal scorer Dany Heatley.

Not only did they scratch their way into the playoffs at a very respectable 5th place finish, but they gave the defending Stanley Cup champions all they could handle in a physically brutal 6 game series.

For sure it's a tough loss to swallow for the die hard Senators fan, but brighter days lay ahead.

The Senators have a ton of top end prospects for their defense core and they already have Erik Karlsson blossoming before their eyes as a teenager - already the best offensive defenseman on the team.

The forwards are still young and Daniel Alfredsson probably has two or three years left in him.

Even Pascal Leclaire showed that with a little faith from the coaching staff, he might be able to be the big time goalie they've needed all along. Two games are not enough to declare him the future, but I think it's fair to say that he wasn't given enough rope by Coach Clouston during a season where he needed a little patience from the organization. If Leclaire isn't the guy, they still have Robin Lehner in the system.

But enough of that kind of talk.

It's been a long road and I'm tired of trying to figure it all out as well.

We'll be back sometime next week when all the dust has settled with some end of year thoughts and some ideas of what to expect in the draft and the free agency period.

But for now, I could use a beer and a little Paul Westerberg for a night cap.

Thanks to all the readers and folks who felt the need to comment throughout the season. Black Aces will continue for at least one more season because there's nothing like having an NHL team in your own backyard to talk about, win or lose.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Incredible! Sens Live! ... After Triple OT Classic - Sens 4 Pens 3


One of the most memorable Senators playoff games ever. Leclaire? Are you kidding me?

Enjoy the moment, Sens fans.

I have to work in the morning. See you folks Saturday.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Nightmare Goaltending Sinks Ottawa, Likely For Good This Time

That was a tough game to watch for Senators fans. The dream died here tonight, even though the technical elimination game will take place at Mellon Arena on Thursday night.

It's still a little too early to sum up a series that isn't officially over yet, but tonight's game was a clear indication that the Senators are being outclassed in all categories, in particular the goaltending department. To call the Senators goaltending a debacle is probably being too nice.

But more on that later.

And it's also clear that Sidney Crosby is the best hockey player in the world right now, with Evgeni Malkin not far behind.

Despite all this, the Ottawa fans down at the Kanata rink have been the brightest spot during this abbreviated playoff season. They've been loud and mostly supportive even when the team was clearly getting run into the ice, an embarrassing situation for any professional athlete.

The team itself clearly haven't given up despite being outmatched and that's a testament to the Senators character which they've shown all season. This is a good group of guys who deserved better, but injuries ultimately led to their downfall.

On top of losing Filip Kuba, Alex Kovalev and Milan Michalek, it's clear that Daniel Alfredsson isn't healthy and I'd be willing to bet that Jason Spezza is being bothered by that chronic bad back. He's playing exactly the same way he usually does when his back is acting up but that isn't giving him any leeway with the fans, who openly booed him during game three. His giveaway to Crosby tonight in the second period that led to a goal didn't help his popularity much, but he at least got that one back later in the game.

It's also much too early to say what will be the result of this inevitable series loss on the Senators in the off-season. But you can probably guess that a few things will dominate the spotlight.

There is going to be a predictable and massive backlash against Spezza from the fans, and it may even chase the affable centre to another city this summer, either by him requesting a trade or Bryan Murray doing him a favour by getting him out of a city that has never liked him much. I think it's unfortunate that things will turn out that way, but when Ottawa fans get carried away, there's not much to be done to save whoever is the target of their ire. We've seen this story played out many times before. Hopefully, he'll get the chance to keep maturing in a Senators uniform, as we saw a more determined Spezza this season.

I can also see the number of season tickets being a big issue. The Senators need a bigger number than they had this year and will likely make a big push this summer with some new marketing, but will a token appearance in the playoffs after a years absence be enough to get the fans to open their wallets? It's a problem that shouldn't be a problem in a hockey town like Ottawa, but there's a reason that Leafs and Habs fans can invade the arena at will - those tickets are perpetually available.

The other major concern will obviously be the goaltending. Brian Elliott has his fans (Coach Clouston) and his detractors (everyone else), but I don't really blame him for what's transpired. To me, Elliott played to his potential, which is as an average goaltender without the ability to make game stealing saves. He's likely not going to get much better but he could still be a great backup who is capable of getting streaky, but Clouston was not rewarded by favouring his familiar AHL goaltender.

Leclaire is a goalie with much more skill than Elliott, but injuries, and a coach who didn't seem to believe in him contributed to a disaster season for him. He may even be done as a Senator altogether.The organization's firing of goalie coach Eli Wilson didn't help matters one bit and the whole department is in a complete shambles right now.

But a more detailed analysis of those situations can wait for the idle days of summer.

For now, the Senators are just going to have to salvage a little pride by trying to delay elimination in Pittsburgh. They have nothing to be ashamed of, as they have given it their all throughout this series.

But like I said before, they lost their chance to face a weaker team by being so damn inconsistent during the regular season and ended up with the worst case scenario - a motivated Sidney Crosby looking to repeat as a Stanley Cup champion.

We'll see how it all ends up in game five.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ticket SNAFU's And The Absurd Return Of Cheechoo???

True story: Someone I know bought a handful of tickets to last night's game in Ottawa well before the playoff dates were set and finalized. He and some members of his family, all bedecked in Sens gear and with their faces painted, showed up at the rink, paid for parking, and were excitedly looking forward to their first ever playoff game.

The problem was that their tickets said "Home Game Three" with no specific date on it. When he initially bought the tickets, he asked the ticket agent specifically for tickets to "game three", meaning last night's tilt. Except that the ticket agent at Capital Tickets gave him tickets to "home game three", which really means game six of the series, if you can follow that. Last night's game was technically home game one, despite it being the third game of the series.

Can you blame the guy for being confused? It's strange that the tickets were labelled "Home Game Three" and not just game six, seeing that Capital Tickets doesn't sell ducats for games at the Mellon Arena. No need for the "Home" distinction in my view. Why not just cut through the confusing semantics and put the actual series game on the ticket in lieu of a date that hasn't been set yet. EDIT: Blood Red Army makes a good point that the Senators didn't know if they had home ice advantage or not when selling those tickets, which validates their reason for putting "Home Game #" on the ticket. The guy I know says he bought the tickets after the Sens were assured to be on the road. Regardless, it's just a sad story I thought I'd relate, the lesson being - don't make the same mistake and make sure you're going to the right game.

You can blame both parties in a way for the unfortunate confusion, but can you imagine the walk of shame this guy and his family had to endure when they found out their tickets were useless for last night? With jerseys and face paint on?

Just brutal, either way you look at it. He was so despondent that he tried to scalp the game six tickets right away outside for face value, with no takers.


I could not believe my eyes or ears when reports surfaced from the Senators today that it's possible Coach Clouston is thinking of inserting Jonathan Cheechoo into the lineup for game four (or should I call it home game two?) .

For one, it betrays a panic, not only to the fans and media, but through your locker room. Cheechoo is a guy who was deemed not good enough to even be a healthy scratch in Ottawa, yet Clouston is now contemplating dropping him into the lineup over two real NHLers in Shean Donovan and whoever the other scratch would be, presumably Ryan Shannon. It was at least nice to hear the seasoned captain of the team, Daniel Alfredsson, say that he doesn't think a major change is needed in order to get back into the series.

Not that inserting Cheechoo would be a "major change", but did Clouston ponder dressing Cheechoo for game one? Of course not. So it's obvious that Clouston has been shaken by what he's seen, while Alfredsson, who has been through these battles many times, is more for staying the course rather than opting for a Hail Mary lineup change so early in the series.

To be fair to Clouston, he hasn't officially made the change yet, but he has already floated the idea to the press, and we're all left wondering why he just doesn't make a concrete decision here. If you're going to make a bold move like that (bold is probably not the right word - perhaps confusing is better) just do it. Don't waffle in front of everybody, compounding a panic move by looking like you're unsure whether it's the right thing to do or not.

Doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

As for Cheechoo, people love him around here simply on the basis that he's a good guy. Yet an even better guy languishes, his career threatened by a coach who seems to have something against him.

And that is, obviously, Shean Donovan. To say that Clouston doesn't believe in Donovan is probably an understatement. Clouston has looked under every rock for excuses not to dress the Senators own version of the "little ball of hate", despite Donovan continually showing that he's not only popular amongst his teammates (giving him a sort of Rudy glow), but that he's effective in the playoffs as his showing against the Pens in 2008 and his long run to the finals with Calgary amply proved.

Clouston threw Shannon into the series, presumably looking for some speed when Milan Michalek went down, but Shannon is miscast on the fourth line. He's a skill guy who can't do the type of grinding needed when slotted beside the likes of Jesse Winchester and Zack Smith. He needs to play with other skill guys to do his thing. Donovan, on the other hand, is just as fast as Shannon, and his game is made for the playoffs - and for that fourth line spot.

Yet now we get Cheechoo hoisted into the lineup, with his "blazing speed and scoring prowess" (sic).

Maybe I'll be totally wrong and Clouston will be right. It's a move so strange that it could just work.

If Cheechoo makes a difference, I'll be the first to congratulate him on this very blog.

Until then, consider me "day-to-day".

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Game 3: Pens 4 Sens 2

Not much analysis needed here. You've all watched it as closely as I have and there's no need to break down the minutiae of the game to see a pattern here.

This series is tilting unerringly in favour of the Penguins, despite a spectacular effort by the shorthanded Senators through the first three games. And unfortunately, the end could come sooner than many had hoped.

If it's any consolation to Sens fans, the series is proceeding as predicted by most. When you are facing a Penguins team with two of the top 5 players in the world surrounded by a championship calibre supporting cast, it's not surprising that the Senators are down 2 games to 1.

In short, the Penguins have more skill, more confidence and better goaltending. And they are much, much healthier. But I don't need to tell you that.

It's tantalizing to wonder what might have been. The skills of Milan Michalek, Filip Kuba and Alex Kovalev combined with the uncompromising effort the Senators team as a whole have showed so far could have been enough to surprise these Penguins. The games have been much closer than I originally thought but with key players out, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson have been neutralized which will ultimately seal the deal here.

More and more, game 1 is looking like an aberration. The Senators won that game simply because the Chris Kelly line had the game of their lives. They've been good since but no one can ask for another game like that. The only other real lights have been Peter Regin and Jarkko Ruutu and that's just not going to be good enough, especially when Brian Elliott is being.... well, Brian Elliott - an average goaltender.

Despite all the doom and gloom, the series is only 2-1 and, as you know, strange things can happen.

Perhaps the novelty of the playoffs is all Senators fans can savour at this point.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Senators Bench Gets Less Crowded - Michalek Gone For Season

Bad news for the Senators as it was revealed today that winger Milan Michalek has completely shredded his ACL and will require surgery.

Questions will, and should be, asked about whether or not having Michalek return so quickly from his previous knee injury which he suffered mid-March, jeopardized the wingers season by playing on an obviously sensitive hinge. But it's the playoffs and it's admittedly hard to keep players off the ice, even if it's for their own good. Michalek gambled and lost. It happens all the time.

But if you're keeping count, that's three major players for the Senators unavailable for the rest of these playoffs, however long they last - Michalek, Alex Kovalev and defenseman Filip Kuba.

I wrote a piece a while ago that of all the top six forwards on this team, Michalek and Kovalev were the guys the Senators could most afford to lose and still have an ability to win. That was in a context of a healthy Kovalev and an injured Michalek who still had a chance to return. Never did I mull the possibility that both would be gone for good. That changes things considerably.

Losing Kovalev was one thing. The Senators still had 5 premier forwards and a couple of guys like Peter Regin and Nick Foligno just waiting for an opportunity to show what they could do. Now with Michalek gone as well, you're putting an awful lot of pressure on Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Matt Cullen and Mike Fisher to make a difference nightly. As we all know, in the playoffs, that's just not possible. Star players often get neutralized by incredibly tight checking and obsessively tended matchups from opposing coaches.

While Alfie and Spezza were relatively quiet in game one, it was the Chris Kelly line that did most of the damage, but they can't be expected to contribute 3 goals on a nightly basis, or even once more during the rest of these playoffs. If that line didn't step up unexpectedly, we're looking at a Senators loss in game one. Losing Kovalev and now Michalek just dwindled the scoring load by two players and the margin of error considerably.

The good news is that Regin looks like he'll have a fine run here, despite some poor penalties taken during game one. Foligno will need to step into Michalek's spot on the second line and show the form he had before he got injured late in the season. But he still looks like he's lost his hands. Time will tell.

Now you have guys like Ryan Shannon (even though it should be Shean Donovan) entering the lineup, and while he will provide some needed speed, he's basically had a throw-away season.
In essence, the Michalek injury just reduced the Senators to a three-line team.

To me, the only guy I'd have no problem throwing over the boards in most situations on that fourth line is Jesse Winchester. Before Michalek's injury, you had a nice balance with Foligno there beside greenhorn Zack Smith and Winchester. As it was, that line didn't see the ice much. Now that will be further reduced.

The Sens may get lucky here and not have the injuries affect them too much in the first round. If they can pull off the upset and get to round two, their top three lines will be in rough shape from the load they now have to bear.

A lot of times, winning in the playoffs comes down to luck. When both teams are even in skill and effort, it's usually who's missing that decides a series.

It's just one more set of odds the Senators will have to overcome to beat the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Game One: Ottawa 5 Pittsburgh 4

That's why you have those guys on the team.

The playoffs.

The line of Chris Kelly, Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu were clearly the best from either team tonight, yet their worth was at times fiercely debated amongst fans, bloggers and the media during the past two regular seasons.

Tonight was a solid reminder that players of their ilk don't always show their true worth until the post-season where guys will gladly eat the boards if it means moving the puck a few inches up the ice.

That's the kind of mentality that Neil and Ruutu bring to the rink and Kelly is a perfect fit as their calming, complete two-way centre.

The Penguins didn't seem to have an answer for that line all night. They had Matt Cooke running around, but, like the rest of the Penguins, Cooke's antics seemed random and only worked once when he managed to get Jason Spezza hauled off the ice in coincidental minors early in the third period. Cooke ended up a minus 2.

Like any playoff game, it was marked by wild surges in momentum and both goalies looked less than impressive, even though Brian Elliott won in a war of attrition. The game didn't start off great for the rookie Elliott when he fumbled a puck out of his glove and watched it drop in front of the crease before Erik Karlsson made a nice play to save a goal from being scored.

And as usual there were some miscues (Peter Regin's three penalties, two of which resulted in a Penguins goal) but in the big picture, the Senators looked like a much better team than the disorganized Pens.

But it's one game.

The real test will be game two Friday night when the Pens will be completely focused on salvaging their opening home stand, and it will be hard to deny a team with that much firepower and experience.

Yet the Senators have already exposed the cracks in the highly favoured Pittsburgh team. The Pens looked completely unprepared for the Senators defenseman who were jumping into the play at every opportunity. That's a system adjustment coach Dan Bylsma can make on the fly, but what he can't change is a Pens defense that looks much too soft in their own end, probably because it's made up of offensive specialists like Jordan Leopold, Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang. Brooks Orpik is a tough defender, but no one is mistaking him for an Anton Volchenkov or an Andy Sutton.

Many times tonight, the Senators were able to cycle the puck down low for long stretches, in particular, Ottawa's two physical lines (the Kelly line and the Fisher line). That's not something that Coach Bylsma is going to put an end to by writing on a chalkboard. That's just big Senators forwards outmuscling small Penguins defenseman.

Say all you want about shutting down Crosby and Malkin, it's the softness of the Penguins defense that will give the Senators their best chance to shock the hockey world and win this series.


The tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorists who believe that Ron Maclean and Hockey Night In Canada have something against the Senators, were no doubt provoked by Maclean's opening monologue in which he talked about Sidney Crosby not having success against Ottawa. "It's not the mountains you trip over, but the pebbles", said Maclean majestically as images of Chris Neil and other Senators warming up flashed across the screen. Pebbles. Usually the tone from HNIC towards Ottawa is merely condescending, but for a moment it looked like they'd cranked up the intensity level to insulting. Yet Maclean and Don Cherry had nothing but great things to say about the Sens after the first intermission and Maclean even got Cherry to admit that Erik Karlsson was a "heckuva player". Truth is, folks in Ottawa get a little too sensitive about these things. There's never been an "agenda" at CBC to run down the Sens. Maclean and Cherry rip the Leafs just as hard. But they do know that Leafs talk and Leafs games drive the ratings. Like everything else in the NHL, it's about the bottom line........

The only Senator who showed up in the first eight minutes of the game was Jarkko Ruutu. He "accidentally" bumped into Evgeni Malkin after the whistle at one point and was given a stern warning from the referee, which Ruutu (hilariously) didn't even bother to acknowledge as he skated to the bench. As Cherry pointed out on Coach's Corner, Malkin had already drawn the ire of the Senators when he lipped off to their bench after the Pens first goal. This, folks, is why the playoffs are so damn good..... Glad to see Zack Smith letting that mohawk grow in. It might have looked cool in Binghamton, but in the NHL you'll only catch grief for it (see Mike Green). And this is coming from a guy, me, who used to have a bright red one when he was a kid. In fact, the only people who should have mohawks are those who know that Black Flag is not just a bug spray.......

Elliott made some great saves, but am I the only one who winces every time there's a shot from the point headed towards his net? He's going to have to be better going forward in order to make sure he doesn't let any more deflating goals in. There are going to be a handful of nights where he's going to outright have to steal a game. That's just the way it is....... Karlsson was incredible again tonight. This guy is going to be a superstar in this league. Like Glen Healy said on the CBC broadcast, not many people around the league are aware of him right now, but they'll all know his name by the end of this series.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Pens and Sens - The Breakdown...

It’s a different atmosphere for Ottawa going into the 2010 playoffs, one of much lesser expectations than in the past decade – or the “glory years” if you’re brave or crazy enough to call them that.

You might argue that no one expected Ottawa to do well going into the recent 2008 post-season after suffering a near historic collapse one year removed from the Stanley Cup finals, but going into that ill-fated first round series against the much younger, less experienced Penguins, you still had the sense that Ottawa just might be able to lift their heads from the mud and at least survive a round or two just on instinct alone.

We all know that series ended in a humiliating sweep at the hands of the Sidney Crosby-led Pens, who went on to lose in the Cup final to Detroit before getting their revenge, and their championship, one season later.

Now Ottawa and Pittsburgh both go into another first round matchup with a lot of hard miles behind them and no guarantee of a return to championship form.

But I’m sticking to my original start-of-season prediction where I picked Pittsburgh to repeat as Stanley Cup champs, and unfortunately for Ottawa, who have shown incredible character through much of the season, I think their exasperating season of dynasty-hinting heights and horrifying lows ends here, same place it ended in 2008. But that doesn’t mean the season will be considered a colossal failure like it was back then. Far from it.

The Penguins, to me, look like a team who basically coasted through the season because they know you need all the blood you can save for the playoffs, and it’s not about how much you spill in December and January. They’ve been to the last two finals and know what kind of stamina and resolve it takes to endure. I’m not saying there was a conscious decision to hold back all year, but you most likely can’t help shrugging off a few games against inferior competition in what amounts to a necessary 82-game exercise in tedium and stat collecting.

They played well enough to get home ice advantage and that’s all they really need to get started.
Yet, they probably didn’t want to face the Ottawa Senators in the first round, and they would have good reason not to.

Bryan Murray has put together an ill-humoured, nasty group of grinders while still retaining more top end skill than most teams in the East. It’s a potent combination and the kind of team that can go on a surprise run.

While no one except Washington and maybe San Jose or Detroit can match the skill of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Ottawa at least enters the orbit with Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza. It’s unfortunate that Alex Kovalev got hurt as he would have been another formidable weapon that would have given the Pens defense some worries.

Let’s call Jordan Staal and Mike Fisher a saw-off in terms of effectiveness. Their games are a little different but they both play similar roles.

Overall, I’d even say that Ottawa has better forward depth than the Pens, with the underrated Matt Cullen, the bash brothers in Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu and well kept secrets in Peter Regin and Nick Foligno. Throw in Milan Michalek and the steady Chris Kelly, and you have as solid a group of skaters as any.

The Pens defense can score more goals and still play solid defense, but the Senators boast 3 of the best shutdown or physical D-men in the game in Anton Volchenkov, Chris Phillips and Andy Sutton. The young Swede Erik Karlsson doesn’t even know what nervousness feels like, so I expect him to be quite good in a playoff atmosphere, possibly better than he plays in the regular season. He has a lot of Alfie in his character and that will give Ottawa at least one bonafide weapon on the back end.

Both teams defense play vastly different styles, but I’d say that Ottawa might actually have the advantage here, at least through defenseman 1-4. Sergei Gonchar is still great but Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski can be infuriatingly inconsistent at times.

So then you break it down to the goalie position. This one is no contest. Marc Andre Fleury is the proven guy and Brian Elliott is the greenhorn. I find goaltending one of the hardest positions to predict, probably because they’re all nuts in the first place. Just because Elliott is green doesn’t mean he can’t stand on his head. Every goalie has to start somewhere and this is Elliott’s first real chance to show what he’s made of. But until then, Fleury gets my respect in this battle.

When you look at it, these two teams are more even than you think. Just writing this piece may have convinced me that the Senators have a better chance than I originally thought.

Whaddya know?

Yet even if the playoffs only last one round for Senators fans, they should be proud that their team fought their way back there after a tumultuous couple of seasons which had a lot of pundits questioning their heart, their dressing room, their fans, and even their location for an arena (again and again!)

As the cliché goes, “anything can happen in the playoffs”. You just never know when it’s going to be your year.


I’ve rounded up my old pal at Blood Red Army to partake in the annual first round predictions, and here they are for you to pick apart.

Let us know where we did right, and where we swerved off the road…


#1 Washington Capitals vs. #8 Montreal Canadiens

Black Aces: Washington in 5
Blood Red Army: Washington in 7

#2 New Jersey Devils vs. #7 Philadelphia Flyers

Black Aces: New Jersey in 5
Blood Red Army: New Jersey in 4

#3 Buffalo Sabres vs. #6 Boston Bruins

Black Aces: Buffalo in 7
Blood Red Army: Buffalo in 5

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Ottawa Senators

Black Aces: Pittsburgh in 6
Blood Red Army: Ottawa in 6


#1 San Jose Sharks vs. #8 Colorado Avalanche

Black Aces: San Jose in 4
Blood Red Army: San Jose in 6

#2 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #7 Nashville Predators

Black Aces: Chicago in 7
Blood Red Army: Nashville in 6

#3 Vancouver Canucks vs. #6 Los Angeles Kings

Black Aces: Vancouver in 7
Blood Red Army: Vancouver in 5

#4 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings

Black Aces: Detroit in 4
Blood Red Army: Detroit in 5

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Congrats Alfie ... Bring On The Pens

Yup, that's me with my first cold one of the evening (a few more followed) at the big Alfie game on Saturday night. All in all, a good show by the Senators organization and a classy ceremony for the captain which actually went by surprisingly fast, compared to similar events in the past around the league.

Unfortunately for the fans, the ceremony was all they could cheer for, save a colossal Andy Sutton hit in the first period and what could possibly be the last goal of Shean Donovan's career.

I found it somewhat strange that Coach Clouston sat Brian Elliott and started Pascal Leclaire. I'm sure the Senators are extra sensitive right now after losing Alex Kovalev for the playoffs due to injury, but it's still somewhat rare for a goalie to get seriously injured and Elliott already had some rest the game before last. Leclaire made a few decent saves but couldn't help his team when it really mattered. Nothing new there.

Regardless, a few quick points:

- A lot of fans can't get the smirks off their faces concerning Kovalev's injury. The jokes are flying pretty good right now, "he was already on vacation" yadda yadda yadda. Fans might not respect him, but I'm telling you, NHL players do. Big time. His presence alone is enough to back defenseman off on the powerplay and give other players room on the ice. He hasn't had a great season, and is certainly on the downside of his career, but Kovalev is more important than most fans give him credit for. His loss is huge. Bryan Murray is one of the most experienced GM's in the league and he didn't sign Kovalev for nothing. In the playoffs is when he really could have made a difference. Now, with major ACL surgery, it's conceivable that Kovalev could be done as an NHL player. We may never know what he could have really done when it mattered the most. It's a very similar situation to Dominik Hasek's brief stay in Ottawa.

- I think the Senators are a team with great character and perseverance. Yet, it's a terrible thing for them that they get a date with the Penguins in the first round. I don't pretend to be a cheerleader for the Sens (disregard that photo at the top ... ahem) and I'm not going to start now. Objectively, I can't see the Senators beating the Pittsburgh Penguins. You think Sidney Crosby is going to let his team lose in the first round? I just don't see it.

It would have been much preferable to face the Devils and an aging Martin Brodeur (no offense to the future Hall of Famer by any means, but everyone becomes mortal at some point) in the first round instead of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc Andre Fleury just entering their prime. It's a little like the Calgary Flames going up against the Edmonton Oilers in the mid-80's.

Yet, the Flames upset Gretzky and company in 86 when Steve Smith scored into his own net near the end of a long, hard fought series. Strange things do happen.

I just don't think anyone can justify picking the Senators over the Penguins in any category worth debating. Skill, experience, and even grit. The Penguins are a tough group. You don't go to the Stanley Cup Finals two years in a row without knowing what it takes to win.

What might give hope to Senators fans is that fatigue can certainly play a factor here. The Pens have looked a little hungover all season long and most of their top players did double time in the Olympics this year as well. There are a lot of miles there. Maybe the Pens just don't have fuel for another run. The last time a team made it to the Stanley Cup final three years in a row was the Gretzky era Oilers, from 83-85 (they won the last two).

That's a long time ago when the league was much different than it is now.

The Senators certainly have a chance and they have the character to pull off an upset like this.

But if they lose, blame their inconsistency during this yo-yo season and remember that they had a chance to win the division over Buffalo and play a lesser team such as Montreal or Boston.

They now have the first round opponent they deserve.

I'm just as interested as the rest of you in how they'll do against the Stanley Cup champions.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My Fifteen Minutes With Alfie

The paper I used to write for, the Ottawa Xpress was an arts mag, music, movies etc. But my editor wanted to do a hockey story and the occasion was the start of training camp in 2005 just after an entire season had been cancelled due to the owners lockout of the players.

I was dying to do this story and begged and pleaded until I was given the go ahead. The next question was, who were we going to interview?

The Xpress rarely asked for a press pass from the very protective media relations guy, Steve Keogh at that time, and we weren't going to get many chances to get into the inner sanctum of the team to do our story. We had one day, one practice, one guy. Who was gonna be the guy to talk to? My editor proposed the new kid in town Dany Heatley, or number one goalie in waiting Dominik Hasek. Someone else said it should be Zdeno Chara. I proposed Daniel Alfredsson and got a shoulder shrug and a blank stare. "Alfie? He's too typical. Not interesting enough. He won't say anything worthwhile. He's too white bread."

But I said it had to be Alfie and, begrudgingly, they agreed. The Senators got back to us and said Alfie was good to go, no problem. We just had to show up during practice and we'd have a lightning quick photo session immediately after he left the ice and then a slightly longer sit down interview once he was changed and ready to talk.

Believe me, I was stoked. I had interviewed plenty of people before, famous and non-famous musicians mostly. I had even been around NHL players before in my job at a high end steakhouse downtown where a lot of players stopped over when they were in town. I had served a very quiet Wayne Gretzky, my all-time favourite Mark Messier, Glen Sather (who actually growled at me with an unlit cigar clenched between his teeth, wondering "where the hell" his food was), Pavel Bure, Scott Niedermayer and Eric Lindros (who had the biggest banana hands I have ever seen to this day - and who was the nicest of them all, by the way).

But I had never sat down, one-on-one with an NHL star and asked him questions other than, "Would you like some more bread?".

So I was pretty nervous too.

The day came and a small crew of us Xpress kids headed out to the Kanata rink, got let in through the back doors by a kindly old security guard, and then we were led down the concrete hallways, past the visitors locker room and onto the visitors bench.

The first thing I noticed was that the rink seemed really small from the ice, especially when all the seats were empty. It was a little surreal to see guys like Hasek up close. Bryan Murray was running the practice and as they did their drills, players like Mike Fisher, Wade Redden and Chara zipped by inches from my incredulous face. Watching Heatley practicing his one-timers was actually scary. When he missed the net and the puck hit the boards, it sounded like someone just blasted a shotgun into the side of a garbage truck. You think it looks fast on TV? In person it was downright frightening and this was just a practice.

A very busy Steve Keogh comes up to us to straighten out all the details about the photo shoot, but I think he just wants to make sure we aren't total losers. He sizes us up pretty quickly and I send him a curveball by asking if Alfie can wear the Senators old white sweater instead of the practice jersey he was going to wear as he came off the ice. I got a very gruff "I'll see what I can do" and he walked off while we watched Murray skate the players into the ice. The goalies had to skate too, and Hasek looked like he was going to expire in the corner at one point.

Anyways, the practice winds up and Alfie is ushered over to our bench by another Senators staffer who has the desired white sweater, which Alfie grabs on his way off the ice. He's out of breath and covered in sweat but he takes the time to say hello to all of us and gives us a smile as he dons the fresh white jersey.

We have our lights set up in the visitor dressing room and Alfie makes a joke to our red-headed photographer that finally, someone was more pale than he was and everyone is put at ease by this "superstar". He takes some instructions from the photographer and stares unblinking into the blinding camera lights for a bunch of different poses, most of which are cover worthy. The guy is a pro. Satisfied that we have our cover shot, the Senators staffer ushers Alfie out of the visiting room, but not before the captain asks who's doing the interview. I gulp once and put my hand up. "Okay bud. I'll be out as soon as I can. Shouldn't be too long", he says.

And so we were left alone. The four of us wander around the visitors dressing room and I'm taking it all in, thinking of all the great players who have sat in here up till now. I see that one of the wooden stalls has the seat flipped up, and in black magic marker it says "Wayne Gretzky sat here in his last game in Canada, 1999", or something to that effect. I point this out to the other guys but they're too interested in talking about some crappy band they saw the other night. I take a seat where Gretzky sat and look around. I think to myself, "If I did this for a living, it would never, ever get old."

So we wait. And we wait.

A media staffer named Melanie says I can sit in on a Bryan Murray press scrum in the hallway.

So I stand next to guys like Wayne Scanlan, Ian Mendes and Bruce Garrioch as they jab tape recorders in Bryan Murray's face and ask him about Heatley and other issues swirling around at that time. TSN and Sportsnet cameras jostle for position. I don't even really hear what Murray is saying. I'm just more incredulous that I'm standing there in the first place. No one seems to notice me and nobody really cares who I am. When it's over, I go sit on a chair in the hallway and go over my list of questions I had prepared for the past week, scratching a few out and writing a few more. The questions all look so stupid and shallow and I start to sweat it out a bit.

It seems there is some kind of team meeting going on, so a lot of the reporters are just milling around, making small talk and looking like they did this sort of thing every day. Wait....

Pretty soon, the players start leaving, walking past the reporters and making jokes, on their way to lunch somewhere. Spezza leaves. Then Hasek. Fisher and Kelly walk by.

After an eternity, the reporters and all the arena staff seem to have disappeared. Tumbleweed blows down the hallway and vultures are circling above me. My mouth is dry and I sense a total failure just ahead. I imagine asking Alfie the first question and coming off like Chris Farley on the Chris Farley Show SNL skit - mumbling and stumbling along until I would have to call myself an idiot out loud. "So... do ...you .... like ....stuff?"

Finally Alfredsson strolls up casually in a brown suede jacket and he gives me and the media girl a sheepish smile and says "Sorry, I took so long. But I'm ready now."

I was hoping we were going to do the interview in the Sens locker room, but we were brought back into the visitors side. I wasn't going to push it. When you write for an unknown rag like the Xpress, you're considered about as important as a crazy person showing up at the rink asking to play the organ during games.

We sat down in two stalls next to each other and I asked my first question. I can't even remember what it was, but it was a bit of a dud. Regardless, he answered much better than could be expected and had no pretensions whatsoever. Immediately I was put at ease and we actually got into it pretty good, to the point where I wasn't even looking at my questions like the rookie that I was. At some point, we were just talking, and it remains one of my two favourite interviews I ever did in my brief journalistic career (the other was folk legend John Prine - who told anecdotal Bob Dylan stories for over an hour).

When I felt I had taken enough of his time for what was going to be a small one page story, I thanked him and he gave me a strange look and said "That's all? Are you sure?"

Yup, that was it. When someone is that accommodating, you feel guilty for imposing on them and all I wanted to do was send him on his way and go out on a high note, like George Costanza used to do. He shook my hand and went on walking down the hallway. I went back to the guys and they looked at me and said "That's it??"

There's not really a major point I'm trying to make by pointing out that Alfredsson is a genuinely nice guy. Everyone already knows that.

But I just thought I'd relate my one, brief moment with the classiest hockey player who has ever donned the Ottawa Senators sweater.

Here's the story from 2005 if you want to take a look.