Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bizarro Senators: Sens 5, 'Canes 1

It's funny, almost a year ago to the day from today's 5-1 victory over Carolina, I described an uncannily unusual win by the Ottawa Senators as reminiscent of the Bizarro World in Superman. When I saw Chris Neil control the puck to make a play to Antoine Vermette, who actually scored a goal, while Dany Heatley was wreaking havoc in front of the Hurricanes net, I thought: Who are these people, what have they done with the Senators, and how can I get them to stick around for the second half of the season?

So we saw Heatley score his first goal in nine games (bizarre), we saw Dean McAmmond score his first goal in 22 games which was only his second of the season (bizarrer), we saw Vermette score his second goal and third and fourth points in the last three games (bizarrer-er, considering his season so far), we saw Mike Fisher score his first goal in 20 games and fourth of the season after not panicking with an empty net in front of him (bizarrer-er-er), and then we saw Chris Phillips score his fourth goal in the last ten games (bizarrest). But I'm not complaining.

We also saw some of the most promising reasoned, on-the-fly coaching from Craig Hartsburg going into and during the game. Upon noticing the unsuccessful perimeter play when the CASH Line is together on the powerplay, he bumped Heatley down to the second unit and shifted Fisher to forward on the first unit. For the first unit, it meant that Fisher trashed it up in front of the net while Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson set up plays with the defencemen. For the second unit, it meant Heatley was put in a position of leadership and trusted to be a powerplay quarterback, something he did very well. I'm thinking of one moment in particular, after Brian Lee rushed a shot from the point, Heatley went back and let him know that he can settle it down a bit before firing the puck on net. Although the Sens weren't credited with a powerplay goal, Vermette and Fisher's goals were both shortly after and a direct result of solid powerplay work. The Sens had 14 powerplay shots-on-goal in the end, and had control of the puck in the offensive zone for most of their powerplay time.

The other demonstration of good coaching came on the penalty kill. After Fisher lost his coverage of Joe Corvo--the 'Canes most lethal offensive weapon on the powerplay when left unchecked--on Carolina's second powerplay, they adapted: On the next Sens' penalty kill, McAmmond covered Corvo like RDS would cover Vincent Lecavalier buying a house in Montréal. For the rest of the game, Corvo was covered similarly, and that--combined with, no doubt, the boos raining down on him hurting his feelings--turned him into a non-threat for the rest of the game. (Although he did provide a great screen of 'Canes netminder Cam Ward on Phillips' goal.)

In nets, Brian Elliott sealed the fate of Martin Gerber. He only faced 24 shots, but he did have to make some terrific saves, and the one goal Ells allowed would have went in on just about any goaltender in the NHL. He outplayed one-time Conn Smythe winner Ward, and might just do well with another 41 games in the NHL this season (plus playoffs)--as long as the team in front of him keeps up their effort level.

The Senators, however, weren't perfect. Spezza had two giveaways, and Heatley had one, too, although he didn't get tabbed for it on the scoresheet, and as a team Ottawa had 10 giveaways to Carolina's four. The difference tonight, though, was that the team used hard work to make up for mistakes they made. Good players have always and will always make mistakes; they are acceptable when those same players use hard work and good backchecking to make sure that the opposition doesn't capitalize on their mistakes. Spezza's M.O. is blind passes, which work sometimes and don't work other times; as long as he gets back to help out, though, the successful ones will seem to outnumber the unsuccessful ones.

All in all, a really great game for the Senators; one of, if not the best game of the season so far. All four lines saw plenty of ice time (Shean Donovan had the least at 8:51, the only skater under 10 minutes, largely because he doesn't see special-teams time), all but two of Ottawa's skaters were on the plus side of the +/- ledger (Jason Smith and Nick Foligno were both even), the CASH Line had four points while secondary scorers combined for the other eight, and the big three also had 18 shots as the Sens heavily outshot their opponents 40-24 and outscored them by a much more impressive margin. With the second half of the season set to start on Saturday against the Montréal Canadiens Wednesday against the Atlanta Thrashers, we've been reminded of what this team can do when they're playing with the right attitude. Although it's not likely at all, it sure would be nice to see the Senators finish out the season with some great effort towards making a push for the playoffs, even if it means we miss out on the John Tavares/Victor Hedman sweepstakes.

Bizarro Superman
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