Sunday, October 5, 2008
A great all-around effort for the Sens made it a positive weekend, and the 3-1 win over Pittsburgh gave Ottawa a very respectable 3 out of 4 possible points in Swedish premiere.
To a man, the Senators had a very good game. It was an effective shut-down system, and I have to agree with Jeremy of Black Aces in saying Craig Hartsburg deserves a lot of credit for the Sens' solid all-around good game. The way the Sens were able to shut down the Penguins, especially the powerplay, brought me back to the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs, when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were so frustrated at their inability to generate chances. It's still very early, but there are good signs, and it's a good feeling.
First off, Alex Auld played incredibly well. He was about one second away from a shutout, and anyone who comes that close to shutting out Crosby and the gang is in pretty good shape. Ben and I were watching the game together, and beforehand he mentioned that with the Sens' goaltending luck, Auld would play the best game of his career. I'm not sure if it was his best-ever, but it definitely throws a wrench in the plans for Martin Gerber to take the starting role and run with it. But this controversy is much cleaner than last year's, because Auld has earned another opportunity to start, whereas last season Ray Emery didn't even earn a shot. Gerber may not like it, but he's made his bed. Hopefully Hartsburg can manage this situation a little better than John Paddock did last season.
Apparently giving Dany Heatley the 'A' was a tremendously good investment for Hartsburg and Co. He played out of his mind today, and not just because he scored two powerplay goals (giving him three on the season). He was hitting, blocking shots (including a really solid block at the end of the second), and just playing a good all-around game. His rounded game might be rubbing off on Jason Spezza, too, as Spezza seemed to have learned from his mistake yesterday (please, God, let him retain this lesson) and made the smart plays when they were called for. One thing that Hartsburg will have to watch out for, though, is not wearing out the big guns too early in the season. Each of Heatley, Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson played over 21 minutes on the game, while Shean Donovan played an effective game once again, his second in a row, but was given less than three minutes of ice time. Donovan was one of the Sens' best players in the playoffs last year, and certainly has a role to play. Jesse Winchester has a solid game considering it was his third in the NHL, and made some really smart plays. I'm very excited to see what he'll be able to do once he really gels with whatever linemates he plays with--especially if that is Chris Kelly and Antoine Vermette, who might end up being the best two-way line in the league.
Defence is obviously a key part of Hartsburg's plan, and the defenders didn't disappoint. To a man they played well, and combined to block nine shots on the night. Auld looked better positionally than Gerber, and his big size means that a lot of his saves are lining up so the puck hits him (rather than acrobatics); with the defence able to clear rebounds and forwards collapsing down low, this system plays right into Auld's style. Filip Kuba got another assist (three on the year) and three blocked shots in just under 25 minutes, and looked very comfortable alongside Jason Smith (who also had a solid game). Toughness is a huge part of the Sens' d-corps this year, with all players over 200 lbs and 6', and Chris Phillips demonstrated it--along with a newfound team pride--when he ran over Maxime Talbot after Talbot ran Alfredsson. Brian Lee and Alex Picard both showed some great poise in the game, particularly when Lee deked around Crosby on the powerplay to get a shot on net.
One concern has to be the number of penalties the Senators took. Although the penalty kill was very effective, the team can't afford to take as many penalties--15 short-handed situations over the course of the weekend--and expect to continue to stay in games as well as they are. As it is, though, killing off 14 of 15 (93%) and offsetting that one blemish with one shorthanded goal is a pretty good way to start the season. And 27% on the powerplay (3-for-11) would have led the NHL last season, even if the sample size is pretty small.
So the Sens have to be very happy with three of a possible four points, even though it was very realistic to have gotten four. They fly back to Ottawa tonight, presumably to readjust to the time difference as soon as possible, and will be playing the home opener Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings. As I said earlier, it's very early, but it's good to see some solid, unified, team play.