Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Puck + net = happy fans: Thrashers 4, Sens 1

What... is... going... on? How can this team be so different from night to night? I've almost come to accept that the Senators aren't as good as I hoped they would be. But how can they beat the Atlanta Thrashers 5-1 one week, and then lose to them 4-1 the next week? It doesn't make any sense to me.

I guess 4-1 score aside, though, the game was actually pretty close. A powerplay goal by Vyacheslav Kozlov on an iffy delay-of-game penalty (the play-by-play folks though it hit the glass and then went out) was all that separated the Sens from the Thrashers until the start of the third period. Then all hell broke lose, as Dany Heatley took a lazy hooking and Colby Armstrong scored on the powerplay, and then Armstrong scored again 31 seconds later. Chris Kelly--after hitting the cross bar earlier in the third--scored off a sweet pass from Chris Phillips with Nick Foligno screening Atlanta goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. But then Todd White scored an empty-netter one the powerplay and the game was over for realsies.

Special teams was the difference. Atlanta went 3-for-6 on the powerplay, and Ottawa was 0-for-4. Same old story for Ottawa: Their only goals at the start of the year came on the powerplay, but it's cooled off to absolute zero and the team is now 19th in the league with a 16.7 per cent efficiency rating.

The onus lies on the CASH Line to get their play going for the team's powerplay--and overall success--to improve. Daniel Alfredsson needs to realize that, as valuable as he is in the defensive zone, he's more valuable in the offensive zone; I love to see a player backcheck, but it's not unusual to see Alfie behind the defensive goal line--causing turnovers and taking control of the puck, granted, but his true value lies in creating turnovers in the offensive zone. Heatley is obviously showing his frustration, but he needs to channel it into positively creating chances and maybe skating a bit more quickly into the offensive zone. And Jason Spezza needs to keep playing with the hustle he is playing with, but start taking his own shots on net and stop cutting back to look out for the Heatley pass. Score a goal, no matter how it happens or who gets credit.

On defence, I've got to give loads of credit to Alex Picard. He played over 20 minutes, and he looked to have the poise combined with physicality that Bryan Murray expected when the deal was made. If his play continues this way, the deal could be a steal for Ottawa, because on this night Picard looked better than Andrej Meszaros did on many nights last season. And Brian Lee, who scored an assist, played with the confidence he was lacking earlier in the season.

Kudos also goes to Ottawa's pests, Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu. Although I still believe that Neil has been improperly slotted into a third-line role, he did a number on Atlanta's Bryan Little in--make no mistake--a completely clean open-ice hit, and Little (after being shaken up) appeared to get out of it without an injury. His hit did what Neil has to do: Use his physicality to turn the tide, and get the Sens going. And Ruutu, the shift after Neil's hit, stood up to the Thrashers' Jim Slater and really took it to him. It looked their actions had changed the momentum, but the Sens couldn't cash in on it in time.

I hate to say it, but Shean Donovan is going to take the fall for the Thrashers' first goal. It was his first--and may be his last--penalty killing shift in quite a while, and he was over-committal and too aggressive. In the end, when Ron Hainsey had the puck at the point on Donovan's side, Shean Don was in front of the net, checking no one, screening Martin Gerber. Donovan was great with Foligno and Ruutu on the fourth line, but he needs to settle down on the PK.

And that brings me to Gerber. He was screened on the first goal, the second was a wrap-around that squeaked in, and the third was after Heatley lost his check and then the puck hit Armstrong, dropped right down and towards the open net. Darth Gerber only stopped 21 of 24, but the fault on the goals shouldn't lie on his shoulders. Still, go back to Alex Auld next game, because he's earned the start.

Sigh... callers on the Senators' post game show are proposing the Sens acquire players like Sean Avery and Alexei Yashin in order to help add some scoring depth. The only thing more disturbing than that fact is that--because they won't likely cost much in a trade or signing--I almost think there's some merit to the ideas.
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