Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Another game the Senators should have lost on paper and another game Ottawa managed to steal two points from. Unbelievable. I was sure the Canadiens were going to halt the Sens four game win streak on Monday night but every time I think this Ottawa team is due for a letdown, they grind another one out and leave the fans celebrating on their way back to a parking lot of frozen cars. And while they get a goaltending hero every night – this time it was Ben Bishop with 44 saves – one of the unheralded players always seems to come through. On Saturday against the Leafs it was the struggling Colin Greening. Last night it was Peter Regin in the shootout who left Carey Price on his back, wildly swinging for a puck that was already behind him. He also clanged the post just before overtime ended. And before that it was Dave Dziurzynski stunning everyone in the building, including Price, by putting a laser beam into the Montreal net without a deflection or anyone screening the Montreal goalie. It was old-school hockey, coming down the wing and burying one. Dziurzynski is a complete surprise. He’s big, he’s fast, he had 7 hits in one game against the Rangers last week, and now he has 2 goals in just 6 games. He looks like an NHL hockey player despite not having any kind of pedigree. He kind of reminds me of a smaller Brian Boyle or one of those horses from the WHL who end up in places like Anaheim or Dallas. I really wonder what happens if he keeps playing this well and the Senators get some forwards back from injury. It would be tough to send this guy down, but you also don’t want to take out Kaspars Daugavins, who seems to be the player’s very own team mascot. It’s easy to see how much the rest of the players love the guy. When you get Sergei Gonchar laughing on the bench, you know you must have some kind of charm going for you. They lost some character with Zenon Konopka and Matt Carkner but Daugavins is pretty good on his own. The barking after a goal might be the best secret celebration the rest of the league hasn’t caught on to yet. Maybe that’s because he doesn’t get to do it very often....
..... Forgive me another Mark Messier story, but when you talk about a guy getting a bench going, you have to talk about this one. In the late Peter Gzowski’s 1982 book “The Game Of Our Lives”, which follows the young Edmonton Oilers around for the entirety of the 80-81 season, he tells a story about Messier sitting on the bench and starting his own chant, “Here we go Oilers, here we go”, over and over again, until the rest of the team started in with him. Now imagine an entire Oilers bench, in the middle of a National Hockey League game, chanting “Here we go Oilers, here we go...” like they were a bunch of beer guzzling, Canadian-tuxedo clad fans in the nosebleeds. That story still blows me away. I can’t exactly imagine Jonathan Toews or Sidney Crosby doing that, but you never know nowadays with the Harlem Shake craze taking over sports....
..... 2 points in the last 9 games for Kyle Turris is a tough stat to carry around, especially when you haven’t scored a goal since January 25th against Tampa Bay, a stretch of 16 games. There’s no problem with his skating or his hustle (nobody seems to be trying harder than Turris out there) but he’s finding life hard in the Jason Spezza role, as anyone would. I’m not saying he needs a “reset” like Greening had, but maybe a game on the second or third line to get away from the other team’s best defensemen would allow him a little more room out there. Seems like all he needs is one to go in, and maybe a change of linemates would do that for him. Paul Maclean always has the option of Regin in the middle if he wants to shake up Turris a little.... With that being said, who needs to shake up a team on a 5 game win streak? But they were badly outplayed by Montreal and eventually that will catch up to them. They need Turris to create offense. Not like I needed to tell you that.... There was a little bit of handwringing over Chris Neil’s penalty late in the second period which led to Andrei Markov’s tying goal. Not a great call by the ref’s but some fans gave it to Neil anyways. How quickly they forget he made the beauty cross-ice feed to Dziurzynski for the Sens first goal. Neil is always going to take penalties because he has to play that way. The ref’s are always watching him and make reputation calls all the time. He more than makes up for any bad penalties with the work he does the rest of the game. He was credited with 8 hits last night, twice the amount of anyone on either team. He’s having another great year....
..... Again, Jakob Silfverberg’s shot continues to amaze fans and horrify goaltenders. Smart move by Maclean to get him out first in the shootout. Price actually got his glove up in time but the shot was so hard and fast that the puck just barrelled over it. Maybe it was me but I thought Price looked a little spooked out by that. I know he’s a different type of player, but doesn’t watching Silfverberg remind you of when guys like Marian Hossa, Erik Karlsson and Martin Havlat started out in Ottawa? You would get these little glimpses of scary, scary skill from game to game and watch them slowly put it all together. That’s exactly what it’s like with Silver right now. It’s frightening to think of a power-play with Karlsson, Silfverberg and Mika Zibanejad a few years from now. Hell, maybe even Alfie will still be out there, still playing keep-away on the half boards.
Friday, February 22, 2013
We’ve seen our share of gutsy teams in Ottawa since 1992, the year this team was reborn after an equally gutsy campaign by the expansion forefathers who heard “it can’t be done” more than most of us can remember. The 96-97 team with their little Buddha statues and sticks-in-the-toilet routine are still beloved by those who were there to see it.
The ’98 team who defied the “experts” and upset the heavily favoured New Jersey Devils in the first round were just as memorable. The organization soon morphed into a highly-skilled but Velveeta soft team that couldn’t handle the Maple Leafs when it mattered most, until Brian McGrattan KO’d Tie Domi and cured the existential crisis of thousands of neurotically damaged Ottawa fans.
Then there was last year’s group of kids, picked by most to be the dregs of the Eastern Conference. They somehow made it to the playoffs, but all it took was a never-ending rollercoaster of comeback victories, slumps, streaks, someone named Erik Karlsson, and ultimately, a Game 7 loss to the Rangers in the first round. But it was the most inspiring group of players to wear the Red and Black since the days of Steve Duchesne and Ron Tugnutt. They were more like a gang than a hockey team.
After last night’s strangely emotional win over the Rangers, with Craig Anderson’s year nearly destroyed by an out of control Chris Kreider slamming into his leg, this hobbled and broken team is clearly making the city proud.
You could hear it in the arena as the crowd tried to resurrect a stunned team in the immediate wake of seeing Anderson, their MVP, get carried off the ice on one good leg. You could see it when Ben Bishop dramatically waved off Kreider seconds after the victory was sealed. You could see it on Kaspars Daugavins’ face as he barked his way down the Senators bench after accidentally scoring between Henrik Lundqvist’s legs. The whole team was in genuine hysterics as the Kanata crowd went to gong-show levels. Even Paul Maclean allowed himself a little smirk, knowing his boys were about to “get away with one”.
Meanwhile, John Tortorella’s reddening face looked like a slapped arse.
He knew his team was beaten by a group of guys who simply wanted it more than the Rangers did. He could look down his bench and know that only Ryan Callahan played as hard as Daniel Alfredsson or Zack Smith did in that game. Other clubs will both admire and hate the Senators for nights like this. Everyone loves an underdog and knows that this organization is going through hell with these injuries, but it also makes them bad when their superstars get beaten by a bunch of AHL’ers named Dziurzynski, Gryba and Wiercioch. Who?
It’s strange to see so many headlines about Alfredsson possibly leaving town once the “inevitable” Ray Bourque syndrome comes into effect. What I saw from the captain was complete focus, and after the Jakob Silfverberg and Daugavins goals, a beaming smile, like the kind of smile a Dad would have on his face. I see a guy who loves his role on this team and in this city. I don’t see a guy who will jump ship even if the team starts tumbling down the standings. I know he says “never say never”, but I got my money on the never.
But is this all just a temporary dream... a group of players with their backs to the wall giving their one last defiant push before reality sets in? Maybe.
I have to admit I thought it was over when Marc Methot tried to help Anderson up off the ice and the goalie collapsed like he was Mike Modano getting tipped over in a stretcher back in the 90’s (remember that?). Even before Anderson, I, like everyone else, thought the season was over after arriving at the Toronto airport from a week in Cuba without internet only to be greeted by a giant television screen showing me Karlsson’s Achilles tendon being severed over and over again. People brushed past me oblivious as I stared at that screen, my carry-on barely dangling from my fingers and my new tan draining back to white.
Yet these guys just keep at it, chipping away a period at a time. This is a case of stats not being able to tell you the whole story. It’s the intangibles - that near-mythic entity that modern hockey writers all too often spurn for cold hard numbers - that you have to follow if this team, this season, is to make any sense at all.
I don’t pretend to know how this team wins games anymore. I just enjoy watching it.
And I’m betting you do too if you’ve come here to read this.
Thursday, February 21, 2013
A Senator who’s definitely growing on me – Patrick Wiercioch. I thought his last two games against the Devils and Islanders were the best I’ve seen him play all season. The guy wanted the puck and made plays out of his own end with some confidence. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I’ve sort of flip-flopped on him since his early start where I thought he was weaker than Andre Benoit and Mark Borowiecki. Maybe it’s his size that gives him a little more presence but I like him the most out of those three to have an impact the rest of the way. But then you have to look at Eric Gryba who played almost four more minutes than Wiercioch on Tuesday against the Islanders and had five blocked shots. It’s good news/bad news for the organization because if Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen weren’t hurt, we might not have even seen these guys play a single game so far, but next season this blueline is going to be both skilled and tough – and hopefully healthy....
.... You have to think that GM Bryan Murray wishes he had played the safe hand and made a move for a veteran defenseman at the start of the season when Jared Cowen went down. There were questions about inexperience even then but Murray gambled a little bit without insurance and is now dealing from a position of weakness. If, God forbid, another Senator d-man went down in the next week or two, what the hell is he going to do at that point? Mike Lundin doesn’t look any better than Wiercioch or Benoit and there’s a long grind of games ahead of this banged up team. A minor deal to bring in a guy with over 200 games experience could help this blueline survive the next two months and just possibly hold onto a playoff spot (don’t laugh – it could happen). Nobody’s going to replace Karlsson but if they’re going with a “grind it out” philosophy the rest of the way, they’ll need more bodies back there. Sergei Gonchar is getting hammered every night along the boards (he's a definite target with Karlsson out) and if you lose him, say goodbye to whatever shred of hope this team has left. You can’t do anything about bad luck but enough is enough. Make a deal....
... Whatever happened to Guillaume Latendresse? Nobody even mentions him anymore. People will talk about Ottawa’s injuries and don’t say his name. He’s a ghost right now..... How is it that Colin Greening has 0 penalty minutes so far this season? For a guy his size to have 0 PIM’s makes you understand why the Senators coaching staff need him to get more involved. If you’re doing things right, you’re going to take a few unavoidable penalty minutes along the way. Not surprisingly, after being a healthy scratch a few games ago, Greening looks motivated of late and against the Islanders had 5 hits and a goal. The last time he had as many hits in a game was also the last time he scored a goal – January 27th vs Pittsburgh where he collected 6 hits. In 10 of his 16 games, Greening has been credited with 2 hits or less. This guy didn’t become known as one of the most fanatical workout machines on the team just to be a perimeter player trying not to make mistakes. He needs to string together some good games real soon.... Dave Dziurzynski, who got his first career goal against the Islanders on Tuesday, is wearing #59, not the most glamorous number. The only other Senator to use it was Erich Goldmann, who played in a single NHL game in the 99-00 season and was drafted out of Germany by Ottawa in 1996.... Speaking of German born ex-Senators, good ol’ Christoph Schubert is in the German league playing for the Hamburg Freezers. Schubert was +30 for Ottawa in 06-07. The guy could hit like a train too....
.... The skinhead look has been somewhat rare in the Senators short history, but Andre Benoit and Craig Anderson are doing their part. Hey, Mark Messier, the most famous cueball in NHL history, is my favourite player of all-time so I’m not looking for a cheap joke here. But off the top of my head I can only come up with a handful from Ottawa’s past. Bryan Smolinski and Alex Auld come to mind right away. Actually, that’s all I can remember. I want to say Denny Lambert but I think he might have had hair when he was in Ottawa. Can you think of anyone else?.... On the other side, Daniel Alfredsson is doing a pretty good lion impression lately and Zack Smith and Karlsson can grow it too. But it’s tough to top the early 90’s Senators when they had Mike Peluso, Darcy Loewen and Dave Archibald among others following the dignified lead of Dougie Gilmour, Brett Hull and Jaromir Jagr.... Tough day for Lindy Ruff. Everyone knows this guy is a hell of a coach and the crap he had to endure in Buffalo with players leaving, ownership changing and bad signings would have destroyed a lesser man. Only a coach like Barry Trotz has a comparable record of keeping afloat bad teams over a similar period. Ruff’s greatest moment in Buffalo might have been the summer of 1999 at a team rally after the tough loss to Hull and the Dallas Stars when he concluded his speech with the two words “No Goal”. He was a hero after that. Now he’s the scapegoat. I’m usually not one to cry over coaches getting fired. In fact, I get annoyed when most pundits go immediately to the “it’s the player’s fault, not the coach” line. Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not. I think Bryan Murray was right to fire all three of John Paddock, Craig Hartsburg and Cory Clouston. But in Ruff’s case it does feel weak. If Jarmo Kekäläinen is looking to start fresh with a new coach next year in Columbus, he’d be crazy not to go after Ruff.
Monday, February 18, 2013
I think it was only a couple of weeks ago in this space that I speculated on why the Senators should be interested in Colorado RFA Ryan O'Reilly. Turns out they might be, according to Bruce Garrioch, and it makes sense. Who wouldn't be interested in O'Reilly? GM's fall all over themselves trying to draft guys with both high-end skill, grit and realistic captaincy aspirations. Not surprisingly, Garrioch says the asking price from Colorado is high. As will be the money O'Reilly will need on a new deal.
But do you actually part with someone like Mika Zibanejad? I pulled that name out of thin air but obviously Ottawa would need to part with at least one of their top prospects, so Zibanejad is worth discussing. In a way, a guy like O'Reilly, 22 years old, would be accelerating Ottawa's partial rebuild a little better than Zibanejad, 19, at this point (Zbad was a healthy scratch against NJ incidentally) because of O'Reilly's modest experience, not to mention stats. The Sens have some prime guys like Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Craig Anderson all in the 28-31 years of age range, a few older vets like Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Phillips who need to win NOW and a whole slew of rookies and under-25's who have yet to really make a significant mark in the NHL.
You could call that balance, or you could also call it a case of bad timing. Are the Senators trying to win a Stanley Cup now with Spezza, Anderson, Alfredsson, Michalek and Erik Karlsson (who is magically in his prime at only 22) or are they rebuilding with Jared Cowen, Jakob Silfverberg and Zibanejad et al? It's a bit of a balancing act for GM Bryan Murray who can't afford to waste the prime years of a special player like Spezza while he waits for a bunch of 19 year old's to gain experience (not that he has much choice at this point).
You only have to look at the deal Murray made for Kyle Turris last year (a trade I initially abhorred for the same reason a lot of people would be revolted by the thought of trading Zibanejad). He sends rookie David Rundblad to Phoenix for a guy with some similar experience to O'Reilly (but worse stats) looking for a fresh start. That little jump in age allowed Turris to play a big role immediately and helped propel Ottawa into the playoffs where they came within a few goals of advancing to the second round. Rundblad may still end up being the better player in the long term but the effect Turris had on Ottawa immediately can't be ignored.
I'm not saying Ottawa should definitely part with a prized prospect for O'Reilly, but if they do, the Senators could have a hell of a team next year as long as the injury situation doesn't repeat itself and Craig Anderson remains a rock back there.
Yet whenever someone like O'Reilly is available, you can predict about 29 different journalists from 29 different hockey cities will be writing an article linking the team they cover to the guy on the trade block. There's not one team, including Colorado, that doesn't need someone like O'Reilly. Even Boston, who has a dressing room full of O'Reilly's, would always make room for one more. It would be the same with Mike Richards, Gabriel Landeskog, Scott Hartnell or David Backes.
The chances that O'Reilly actually ends up in Ottawa are slim in part because Colorado will ask for the moon knowing that the Senators are desperate for healthy players and have more high-end prospects than most teams. Murray is a sensible guy. He will balk at anything that could potentially undermine the drafting effort he made since becoming GM in 2007.
Or will he?
NOTE: I'm just back from vacation and still trying to clear out the cobwebs and absorb the mind-destroying news of Erik Karlsson's season ending injury. The posts on Black Aces will pick up as the week goes along and I get my family's 35 suitcases unpacked to my wife's exact specifications.
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Note: I’ll be out of country on vacation for a week so Black Aces will be back around the 15th or the 16th of February while I’m getting inebriated in the sun without an internet connection. In my head I’m already on the beach but I thought I’d get in a few words before I head out.
The Senators next three games at home are all winnable – Carolina, Winnipeg and Buffalo – before they go into Pittsburgh on a back-to-back next Wednesday. If they could get those six points, or even 5 out of 6, Ottawa will have a comfortable cushion on a playoff spot that will offset some expected dry spells without Jason Spezza in the lineup. It’s a certainty the Senators will lose games directly because they don’t have Spezza driving the offense. He’s that important. But if you get on a roll here at home and beat the teams you should, it really gives this team breathing room while they wait for #19. They could lose 3 or 4 games in a row later this month and still be alive. Carolina will be tough but Ottawa has better luck with them in Kanata than they do in Raleigh. The Jets straight up stink on the road, even though they stole one in Ottawa last January. The Sabres are a mess right now and Ottawa always plays them well. Six points is not out of the question.... Which makes you wonder if Ben Bishop is going to get one of those games. My guess is he gets the Jets on Saturday but or maybe even Buffalo on Tuesday which would allow Paul Maclean to save Craig Anderson for the Penguins the next night...
Strange how hockey fortunes go. Peter Regin was given a chance as a second line centre and looked intimidated and ineffective in two consecutive losses against Carolina and Montreal. Next game he gets dropped to the fourth line and starts making great plays, resulting in two assists and an increase in shifts and ice-time. Is it a coincidence or is it the sudden decrease in pressure? Whatever it is, it’s working. I doubt Regin will get another chance to play in the top-six until the Sens lose a game or two and the chess pieces are moved around, but there’s nothing wrong with having a playmaker on your 4th line going against the opponent’s worst defensive pairings. There’s a really good hockey player hiding in Regin (remember Sidney Crosby praising him a few years ago after their last playoff meeting?) but we’re all still waiting for him to appear. I don’t know why I’ve spent so much time talking about him this week Regin is an interesting guy. You get that gnawing feeling that even if he doesn’t prove himself and the Senators let him walk this summer, he’ll show up somewhere and be a top-six guy eventually..... Nice to see Daniel Alfredsson back. It took him a few weeks but he’s been dangerous for the last two games and was the best player on the ice against Buffalo last night – or was it Erik Karlsson who deserves that status? The scary thing is Karlsson thinks he hasn’t played his best game yet. Imagine if he played in Toronto or Montreal? There wouldn’t be a bigger name in hockey right now.....
.... Thank the hockey gods that we get to witness at least one or two franchise train wrecks every years. It’s kind of a nasty thing to say, but it’s undeniably fun to see a team like the Washington Capitals collapse, the same way a lot of fans surely enjoyed Ottawa’s own disaster zone a few years ago. I don’t want to see someone like Adam Oates lose their job, but it’s fascinating how once great teams can fall on such hard times. It wasn’t that long ago that Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green were the hip kids of the NHL. Now they’re openly ridiculed with non-D.C. fans cheering on every loss, wondering how far it can go before all hell breaks loose. I know that when I read out of town hockey news, I’m immediately checking out the Washington, Buffalo or Philadelphia papers ahead of anything out of San Jose or Chicago. There’s not much to say when a team’s going good, the same way I find it harder to write about Ottawa after a win than it is after a loss (as you can see by this slight piece of fluff today). There’s a lot of people kicking Ovechkin and Green on their way down, but if Pittsburgh was similarly struggling, there would be a lot of sympathy for guys like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The reason? The Caps stars struck fans as cocky, even arrogant. The same can’t be said for Crosby and Malkin who have always appeared more humble.... Speaking of fallen stars, it’s hard to watch Tyler Myers play hockey nowadays. The Sabres, and their long suffering fans deserve a better fate than seeing their future franchise player come unravelled like that. Lindy Ruff has to get that kid back on track or he’s going to finally lose his job. Even Ryan Miller can’t bail out a defense that’s playing that poorly.
See you folks next week.
Monday, February 4, 2013
What would Ottawa give up for a chance to trade for Ryan O’Reilly? No one is even suggesting Ottawa is considering such a deal, nor Colorado who seem intent on playing hardball with the RFA as Montreal did with P.K. Subban, but if he does become available he’s the type of player Murray would love to have here. Most GM’s would feel the same way. Would you deal Mark Stone as part of that package? Most fans would instinctively scream “Nooooo” because parting with prospects and draft picks is seen as treason nowadays, but Murray had a lot of success with Kyle Turris, a player who was locked in a philosophical or personality clash with his previous coach in Phoenix, Dave Tippett. Not much difference with O’Reilly except that it’s over money this time..... Tough to see Peter Regin struggling to create offense when he knows this may be the biggest opportunity of his career with Jason Spezza out. In the last two games he’s looked timid and frustrated, even pedestrian. Stats aren’t everything, but his are downright ugly. 9 games, 0 points and 41% in the faceoff circle. He does have 15 shots, good for 8th on the team but then you look at guys like Chris Neil (23 shots) and Erik Condra (20 shots) and wonder why Regin doesn’t have more. He had a chance to shoot on a 2-on-1 against Montreal on Sunday but forced a pass back across the ice which was picked off. You could feel his confidence derailing into the side of a building on that play. Time for a change on that second line? Maybe Stephane Da Costa gets a chance in that spot, but it’s not clear where he’ll play until Maclean addresses the media about it. My guess is Regin gets a little more time.... On the positive side, even after 2 losses in a row, Daniel Alfredsson is looking better. It might have been his best game against Montreal on Sunday and he was all over the puck. Takes a while to get those old bones warm, but once he’s at the level he can get to, expect some goals to come on the powerplay....
..... It seems a shame that in order for Guillaume Latendresse to get back in the lineup it will likely mean Kaspars Daugavins sits. There’s just something about the energy Daugavins brings on that fourth line which makes you want to see him play most nights, but that’s not going to happen..... Cam Ward is killing me in my hockey pool. Every year I pick a dependable goalie and every year that goalie falls apart in the first few months, putting me miles behind the pack. Last year it was Ryan Miller. Why didn’t I pick Luongo?..... Timing is everything and it’s unfortunate for Ottawa that Spezza’s injury and Jakob Silfverberg’s growing confidence are intersecting. The two struggled a little playing with each other for the first time but it would have been interesting to see if the chemistry started growing once Silfverberg got more comfortable, which seems to be happening now. The team can’t score but Silfverberg looks like he’s starting to get a feel for the games and would have figured in on two Ottawa goals on Sunday if it weren’t for the worst blown call of the year. The league is erring too far on the side of caution and it’s screwing with the brains of the refs. The spirit of the goalie interference penalty is to protect them from forwards crashing the net as a tactic for goal scoring and causing severe injuries like Grant Fuhr suffered when Nick Kypreos bowled him over on purpose in the 90’s. It’s not there to call off goals on minor technicalities such as a slight bump, and especially not to allow Carey Price to skate out of his crease, bump a forward like Silfverberg and have a perfectly good goal disallowed. We’re getting into soccer and basketball territory here and it’s downright sickening to watch. This is not just an isolated blown call. This is the mindset of a league that’s been bullied by whining goalies like Ryan Miller and battered by the press for violence and as a result we see ref’s blowing their whistle at almost anything. You’ll see it more this season and Ottawa won’t be the only team victimized by it....
.... Gotta admit, I had some real doubts about Montreal. Rookie GM, bringing back Michel Therrien and playing hardball with P.K. Subban. So far it’s all worked out and they look like a different team. They’re tough, they can skate with anybody and their goalie might be the best in the league. They look like a playoff team to me..... This lack of scoring and Spezza’s injury are doing a pretty good job of masking Ottawa’s real need, which is still on defense. Patrick Wiercioch, Andre Benoit and Mark Borowiecki have done a decent job back there but on most nights they’re just surviving, although I think Benoit has been the best of the bunch. When Sergei Gonchar went down with the flu, you could see the strain on the pairings which resulted in Erik Karlsson trying to do a little too much and the power-play looking noticeably weaker. And I don’t think Paul Maclean really feels Borowiecki in particular is ready to be a regular, by yanking him in and out of the lineup. This team would look much better with one more veteran back there and Mike Lundin doesn’t strike anyone as the solution, although it’s wrong to write off a player who hasn’t even tied his skates yet. Kurtis Foster would have been a nice addition to this team when he was available but that ship has sailed. Mark Eaton anyone? It’s not as if there’s a whole swath of veteran defenseman available for Bryan Murray to pick up, but there were a few immediately after the lockout. There’s no panic now, but that can change rather quickly.