Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Plenty of motivation for Senators

Going into the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Ottawa Senators have no shortage of motivation. From no respect in the media to no respect from the opponents, the list goes on.

First off, no one in the media is giving the Senators a speck of respect, and many are predicting a cakewalk for the Penguins. Maybe the Sens have made this bed; the way this team has been playing they don't really deserve much credit. But they way we all know they can play, and the way they have played at times this season, and the penchant for players like Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Cory Stillman, Chris Phillips, Chris Neil, Dean McAmmond, Mike Commodore, Christoph Schubert, and Antoine Vermette to step up their game when the going gets tough is enough to at least give the Sens a shot at making some waves in the series.

As if that wasn't bad enough, there's the possibility that Pittsburgh chose their opponent. Although fans of the Penguins are vehemently denying this, the scratching of Sidney Crosby if the regular season's final game, and the lacklustre performance by the rest of the squad in that 2-0 loss to Philadelphia, all with the Eastern Conference regular-season title on the line, smells a little funny to me. The mentality, as pundits and Sens coach Bryan Murray has suggested, is that the Pens preferred Ottawa's style to the punishing play of the Flyers, so they made it happen. If that's true, there could be some unpleasant surprises in store for the Pens.

On an individual basis, plenty of players have a lot to prove, and it starts in the net. Martin Gerber has been knocked for his unreliable play for the last six weeks, and especially for his unproven playoff record. If he steps his game up a notch and steals a game or two, he makes a great case for himself; if not, he might have a hard time finding a job for next season (as the Sens might simply buy him out).

After that, Wade Redden has had a forgettable two seasons, and he's playing for a contract for next season. If he really wants to stay in Ottawa, he's really going to have to pick up his play and lead by example--and make his breakout passes count without turning over the puck.

Staying on the blue line, Commodore has been tagged since Murray picked him up as a playoff warrior, and most people have looked past his struggles in the regular season by looking forward to the playoffs. If he fails to step it up when it counts, it won't look good on him or the general manager.

Moving up to the forward ranks, both Heatley and Spezza can go a long way in earning the long contracts they've both been signed to. The team's slide was suspiciously timed shortly after those two were signed to their multi-million dollar, long-term deals, and both of those players need to show that it wasn't a mistake.

Randy Robitaille and Chris Neil have had terrible seasons. Robitaille hasn't been the producer he was expected to be, and he's getting one last chance to play on the top line; if he does nothing in the first 20 minutes of the game tonight, count on him being bumped down to the fourth unit in favour of a physical presence beside Heatley and Spezza. Neil hasn't been the pest presence he's suited to be, except for the annoyance Sens fans feel when he takes penalties instead of drawing them. Not to mention his offensive fall-off, Neil really needs to prove himself this playoff run.

Although Robitaille is probably playing for a job next season, Vermette is playing for a big pay increase. If he can finally prove once and for all that he has the ability to step into a second-line centre role and continues to play like he did in the final two games of the regular season, he's due for a doubling or perhaps tripling of the salary he's making right now.

However you cut it, the possibility is there, and the Sens have plenty to prove. All they have to do is make it happen.
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