Not too shabby. That is how Cory Clouston’s first full season as the head coach of the Ottawa Senators will be remembered by most. The team's fifth place finish in the Eastern Conference was an overachievement in many people’s estimations; as was taking the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to overtime in game six.
There is no doubt that Cory Clouston deserves much of the credit for his teams successes, but he is also responsible for its mistakes, and there were several in the first round against the Pens.
Sidney Crosby scored, seemingly at will, against the Senators in the first round. The 22-year-old racked up seven points in the first three games of this series, with Jason Spezza as his shadow. With the Senators goal light lit up as much as it was, it’s no wonder that Crosby's shadow was often found behind him.
In game four, after much speculation that Selke nominee Mike Fisher would draw the Crosby assignment, Clouston decided to go with Chris Kelly.
Crosby played his most productive offensive game of the series, scoring four points and finishing the game with a plus-3 rating.
It was not until game six on Saturday that Clouston put Fisher on Crosby full-time. The result, Crosby failed to score a point and finished the game with a minus-2 rating.
Sidney Crosby scored 14 points in this series, nine at even strength. Only two of those nine points were scored with Mike Fisher on the ice.
Waiting until game six to put your teams only Selke nominated forward against the best player in the world is simply not good enough.
Jonathan Cheechoo was inserted into the lineup in game four to produce offence. Cheechoo had not scored in his last 11 games. He did not score in this game either and did not play again in the series.
Playing with a lead
Sometimes the best defence is a good offence. That seems to be the only cliché that the Ottawa Senators have not memorized. The Senators opened the scoring three times in this series, but won only one of those games.
In game five, the Sens scored twice in an opening 12 minute sequence that saw Ottawa completely dominate its opponent. With the two-goal lead, the Senators proceeded to sit back, not fore-check and hope that the Penguins were not offensively gifted enough to catch up. Sounds stupid doesn’t it? Well, it looked stupid too.
The Pens tied the game late in the second period and took the lead midway through the third. Now Ottawa was forced to play an offensive minded game and sure enough, it scored less than 90 seconds later. The Senators went on to win the game in triple overtime.
Fast forward to game six, Ottawa again carried the pace of play and led 3-0 midway through the second period. Again, the Senators stopped pressing, and again the Penguins made them pay.
The Pens outshot Ottawa 18-4 in the third period and scored three goals in just over 20 minutes, en route to an overtime win.
Whether Clouston told his team to sit back and defend, or they did it on their own, he is accountable. I am willing to give Clouston the benefit of the doubt and assume that he would not be foolish enough to tell his team to sit back against one of the most potent offensive teams in the NHL.
However, if you see your team sitting back it is the job of the coach to identify and rectify this problem. It nearly cost the Senators in game five, and it did cost them in game six.
Had the Senators continued to push forward, they might be playing today, instead of cleaning out their lockers.
Almost equally puzzling is who Clouston had on the ice when Pascal Dupuis scored the series clinching goal in overtime, Saturday night. Sean Donovan, Jesse Winchester, and Zack Smith were on the ice when Pascal beat Pascal to clinch it for the Pens.
Why were Donovan and Smith, who did not play at all during the two and a half overtime periods in game five, on the ice less than 10 minutes into overtime in game six? The line was not to blame for the goal, but it is curious, nonetheless, that they were on the ice at all.
This was Clouston’s first NHL playoff series, and at times it showed. However, the Senators were playing without two top-six forwards and a top-four defenceman. Clouston’s decision to bring in Pascal Leclaire was scrutinized before game five, and celebrated at the series end.
Much like a pro hockey player, coaches have to deal with a steep learning curve, and overall Clouston did a decent job.
Last year, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, survived multiple game sevens to win the Stanley Cup in his first season behind the bench in Pittsburgh. Simply, the Senators and Clouston were outplayed and out coached, ultimately failing to force one in the first round this year.