Like a finely-crafted piece of Allen key-assembled IKEA furniture, the Ottawa Senators have arrived home from Sweden in one piece—though there may be a Swiss screw loose.
After a weekend that saw Ottawa come home with three of four possible points, some things have become abundantly clear about the 2008-09 Senators.
First, Martin Gerber was horrible in game one, absolutely atrocious. Even an average goaltending performance could have sealed a victory on Saturday afternoon in Stockholm—but Gerber was unable to supply even that.
I'm not sure what the deal is with Gerber. Occasionally he looks like he could shut out the 1987 Canada Cup team, then five minutes later he'll let in a floater from inside the blue line.
I'm not certain it is time to cut him loose yet, but he's certainly on a very short leash. And no, Khabibulin is not the answer, so stop with the rumours.
Another revelation from Saturday's game—though this one is hardly surprising—Hockey Night in Canada hates Jason Spezza. I'm not sure if it's jealousy because a Toronto boy isn't playing for the Leafs, or if Ron Maclean secretly loathes anything with a Don Cherry connection (Spezza agent is Bobby Orr and he played for Cherry's OHL team in Mississauga), but there is clearly an anti-Spezza bias at HNIC.
Yes, Spezza turned over the puck at the Pittsburgh blue line leading to the winning goal, but there are a few factors that need to be considered before publicly ripping the guy on national TV.
- It was overtime, one point was in the bank, and it was four-on-four—he was trying to create some offence. Spezza is specifically put out there in the dying minutes of OT to try to create offence, he had nothing to lose.
- The chance he gave up to Tyler Kennedy was a two-on-three. Yes, that's right, he was still outnumbered, yet somehow a floater from the top of the circle made it past Gerber. The goat on that play is Gerber, not Spezza.
- The Senators have traditionally been horrible in shootouts, so going for the win at the end of OT is just smart thinking.
Overall, the feeling I got from Saturday's 4-3 overtime loss was overwhelmingly positive. The Sens outshot, outhit and outchanced the Penguins despite some horrific officiating, which by now I guess I should be used to when playing the NHL's favourite team—Sidney and Friends.
Sunday was a continuation of the positives I saw on Saturday, with the added bonus of competent goaltending.
I saw a Senators team that was aggressive on the puck, winning one-on-one battles, being physical, sticking up for teammates, and generally playing a very solid defensive game.
This speaks to my season preview. The Sens still have plenty of offensive firepower, but the added dimension of good team defence means they can now win 2-1 and 3-1 games instead of having to win 5-4 every night.
As far as individual player performances go, there were a few standouts for me:
Dany Heatley: The guy is a goal-scoring machine, but this season he seems to have added an extra dimension to his game. He was blocking shots, hitting, and playing great defensive hockey. It's amazing what putting an 'A' on someone's jersey will do.
Jason Spezza: despite the HNIC haters, I was impressed with Spezza's game. He was creating offence and seems to be making a genuine effort to try the safe play first.
Jarkko Ruutu: I love this guy, and I take back all the harm I wished on him in previous years. He adds a dimension to the Sens that they have needed for years—pain-in-the-ass-ed-ness. His presence seems to have reinvigorated Chris Neil as well, perhaps because he was worried about his role on the team once Ruutu was signed.
Jason Smith: I always loved this guy in Edmonton, and now he's a Sen. I love the fact that he smiles in scrums—it's that little added element of insanity that brings so much to the game.
Alexandre Picard: Forget about Filip Kuba (who has been great)—this kid is worth Andrej Meszaros straight up. He looks poised on the power play, has a great shot, and adds a physical dimension.
Nick Foligno: This kid is going to break out this season. He has added some strength and some moves to his game—which, when you add in his already-present determination to get the puck at all costs, is a great combination. I see 20-25 goals from him.
Jesse Winchester: I have to admit, I didn't like him in preseason. I thought he was overhyped and being handed a roster spot without merit. But now that he has been taken off the Heatley-Spezza line and put with Kelly and Vermette he looks much more comfortable. He's a determined forechecker, tough to get off the puck, and he has some great hockey sense and always makes the safe play. Another Brian Murray diamond in the rough, perhaps?
Overall, what I took out of the weekend was a renewed sense of optimism that this team has learned from its mistakes—even I wasn't drinking my own Kool-Aid completely before. There was a renewed commitment to team defence, much improved physical play, and a far greater sense of “team” was evident.
This edition of the Ottawa Senators will probably not lead the league in goals anymore, but the more well-rounded team game they have displayed so far suits me just fine. I'd much rather watch a group of hard-working guys win 2-1 than a group of lazy prima donnas win 5-4.
Now if we could just get Gerber to get his head in the game, the Sens would be a force to be reckoned with. If not, I think Ottawa is still good enough to cover for Gerber—at least until the playoffs, and then all bets are off.
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