Monday, November 21, 2011
Senators Winning But Da Costa Hurting Second Line
Coming home for a week off after racking up 7 out of a possible 8 points in their last 4 games on the road, the Ottawa Senators are starting to look like a team that have a strong playoff push in them after all.
They’ve held down that last playoff spot in the East, one point up on a trio of familiar teams - the free-falling Capitals, the Devils and Canadiens. The Leafs are just two points up on Ottawa, and the Senators are just three points back of the Flyers for the top spot in the East.
Not bad for a bunch of rookies, some aging vets and a first-year head coach condemned to spend almost all of November on the road going from East to West and back East with a healthy Sidney Crosby waiting for them at the end of the line.
With that being said, the next mind-numbing losing streak could be just around the corner. Even a minor slip could bring this team back down to earth. That’s not just an Ottawa problem. That’s the NHL. Even the best teams won’t have any breathing room until late January or early February.
For all of their recent success, the Senators have a growing problem right now and that’s with their second line of Stephane Da Costa, Nick Foligno and Daniel Alfredsson. Let’s not beat around the bush here. We’re talking about Da Costa.
The kid is clearly regressing and was pretty much invisible on the Western road swing, forcing coach Paul MacLean to finally sit him for an extended period last night against Vancouver because his line was clearly the most ineffective of the four. Da Costa was the only Senator other than the lightly used Zenon Konopka to play under 10 minutes. If that’s your second line centre, there’s big reason to worry. Luckily for Ottawa, their third and fourth lines are playing above their punching weight right now and the Spezza trio is still producing.
You may have noticed that Alfredsson had a lousy road trip, over handling the puck at times and not getting as many shots as he normally does. Last night in Vancouver, he put one shot on the net in just over 17 minutes of ice-time. Foligno has fared better but when he’s on his game, which is being physical and going to the net, it doesn’t really matter who his centre is. But for Alfredsson who likes to play give and go or get into open ice for one-timers, he needs a centre who is able to give him the puck and Da Costa just isn’t doing that right now.
When he’s not sitting on the bench looking gap-mouthed and stunned by the game going on around him, he’s skating around the perimeter of the action looking uncomfortable and uninvolved. That’s a far cry from the Da Costa who earlier in the season was willing to take hits to make plays and carry the puck over the blueline to set up in the zone. For the first time, Da Costa looks overmatched physically and struggling to make quick decisions.
People have been on him for losing so many faceoffs but that seems to be a hallmark of rookie centres. What’s more troubling is his lack of involvement in the other team’s zone, even when he’s making an honest effort defensively as he has all year.
Perhaps it’s time to give Da Costa a chance to get that confidence back in the minors. With Peter Regin still on the mend, the Senators need to change that second line up before it gets even staler.
You get the feeling they could use some size and maybe Zack Smith gets a chance to move up to play with Foligno and Alfie (I wonder if the Senators regret sending big Mika Zibanejad back to Sweden, where he has struggled). Or they could simply shift Foligno over to centre and promote a winger up to that line like Bobby Butler or Erik Condra. They could even split up that top line and try to get Milan Michalek or Colin Greening away from the other team’s top defenseman, but there’s probably not much impetus to break up a line that’s working so well together.
They could make that call to Bingo and retrieve the misanthropic Nikita Filatov and give him one last chance to show he can stick, even if his appearance will set off a bit of a controversy in town after he let it be known he’s ready to take his show to Russia.
I’m guessing GM Bryan Murray would much rather not make a trade at this point. The team is doing fine and the cure for that second line clearly resides with Peter Regin if he can get healthy and stay that way. They have some people on two-ways that can move up or down leagues and Murray has some option on forward and defense as well.
What’s important right now is they get someone to play with Alfie and get him going again. Otherwise they’re going to have a tough time winning when the top line goes through a cold stretch as they inevitably will.
Clearly, Da Costa is not getting the job done right now. It will be interesting to see what Murray and MacLean decide to do about it.