Thursday, February 12, 2009

Prove it all night: Sens 3, Sabres 1

Despite the best efforts of referees Chris Ciamaga and Kerry Fraser, and the somewhat less-than-best efforts of the Buffalo Sabres, the Senators walked into Buffalo feeling pretty good and walked out feeling even better, and two points richer. The game was a necessary sixty-minute effort, and almost to a man the Senators brought their best.

Alright, let's start with special teams. Penalty-killing. Although several of the penalty calls were on the chintzy side, most of them were justifiable. One that wasn't, though, was the triple-minor assessed to Jason Smith, which Fraser complemented with a ten-minute misconduct after Smith told him how he felt about it. For those of you who didnt' see the incident, it began when Patrick Kaleta took a run at captain Daniel Alfredsson. Then Smith stepped up to run Kaleta through the boards, but held back when he saw Kaleta was in a vulnerable position. So he held back, told Kaleta to watch his ass, and the Kaleta challenged Smith and they went at it. Out of it all, Smith got three roughing penalties, and Kaleta got nothing. It boggles the mind, but I guess Fraser thought he'd seen something that wasn't there. Anyway, the Sens penalty killing--even without Smith for almost half the game--was impeccable, killing 17 of 18 short-handed situations, and only allowing the one powerplay goal on a 5-on-3. It was an impressive showing, particularly for Antoine Vermette, Chris Kelly, and Anton Volchenkov (but also for the rest of the PK team, including Alfredsson, Mike Fisher, Dean McAmmond, Jarkko Ruutu, Chris Phillips, Filip Kuba, and even Brian Lee once in a while).

On the powerplay, Ottawa was a very impressive 2-for-6, and I'll give a lot of credit for that to Brendan Bell. Although he can be a liability at even-strength, Bell's ability to control the puck at the point and thread passes through openings directly resulted in the first goal, which banked off Jason Spezza's skate, and Bell got another assist on Alfredsson's powerplay goal, as well. He's earned his spot on the Sens' third d-pairing, even if that means Alex Picard sits out a few more games.

Speaking of Spezza, he had a great game. He was competing and skating hard, and driving to the net--as evidenced by the Sens' first goal. He had four shots, second on the team only to Alfredsson (who had five) and one takeaway. His pressure, though, undoubtedly helped cause several other Buffalo giveaways, as did the Senators' aggressive forecheck all night. Spezza looks like he really appreciates the system that new coach Cory Clouston is trying to implement, and it sure is impressive to see.

A lot of credit for tonight has to go to Ruutu, who--on top of his disciplined and effective penalty-killing--was at his most super-pestiest tonight. He, Alfredsson, and Nick Foligno each bowled over Ryan Miller at some point, and Ruutu's screen was quintessential in giving Shean Donovan something to shoot at for Ottawa's second goal of the game. He was jawing at the Buffalo bench all night, and that might have had something to do with their apparent disinterest in competing in the game.

On the Dany Heatley front, I don't want to overstate anything, but he only had 12:44 in ice time, by far a season-low. It certainly had something to do with all the penalty-killing time, but both Spezza and Foligno had negligible PK time but more ice time than Heatley. More concerning was that in his 12 minutes of ice time, Heatley had zero shots--a huge faux-pas for a shooter who is expected to lead the second powerplay unit. He and his coach can say they're on the same page, but Heatley's going to have to show it on the ice if we're going to believe it.

I've also got to give Lee credit for his work short-handed. He had 5:17 in PK time on the night, and twice drew Buffalo penalties to negate their powerplays. He kind of looks like Bambi on ice when he's out there, wide-eyed and light on his feet, but his play is effective and he makes it obvious when an opposition player gives him a shot in the back in front of the net.

Most of all, though, Brian Elliott. A huge part of any penalty kill is going to be your goaltending, and--despite what analyst Pierre McGuire thinks--Elliott was terrific in stopping initial shots and limiting his rebounds to a minimum. He ended up stopping 31 of 32 shots in all, and his play at the start of the game likely frustrated the Sabres until they lost interest. And when Buffalo regained interest in the third period, Elliott was solid. I don't want to jinx anything, but he is--amazingly--perfect on the road, and has four of Ottawa's seven road wins this year. Very strange, but also awesome.

Prove it all night. There's nothing else we can do.
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