Saturday, February 28, 2009

Ramblings of a Desperate and Eternal Optimist

(Source: Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images)

Picture has relatively little to do with the topic of this post, per se, but both the boy and I thought it was very clever and rather brazen when we were at the game Thursday night, so it gets immortalized on the blog. At least Sharks fans are quiet and much less obnoxious than either Habs or Leafs fans, the latter which we'll have to face tonight at Scotiabank Place for the game against Toronto.

When it comes time to pick our games in July or so I always rather sentimentally choose a Leafs tilt, believing that since those are games that fully half the population of Ottawa would likely kill to go see, I have a solemn duty to take that opportunity. But then when it actually comes time for the game, I am considerably less pleased. I've been to probably 50 Leafs games in my years as a fan, and they never get any easier. Besides, it's fucking cold outside today, and I'm not exactly relishing freezing my ass off as the north wind whips around the arena. However, I am also a real fan, not a bandwagoner, so I consider it my duty to piss off all the Toronto fans by showing up in my Alfredsson jersey.

This is a very, very long-winded way of saying that things are hopefully back to normal here at Bleed Black & Red, after another busy week for your blogger and some computer trouble to boot. While I was away, the perfect record this blog had been maintaining (not a single regulation-time loss since its creation!) was unfortunately and predictably shattered. So too were our feeble dreams of perhaps making a last-minute playoff run. Being the eternal optimist that I am I wasn't totally willing to concede yet, but what I saw this past Thursday while duly in attendance in Section 205, Row E, Seat 4 pretty much convinced me.

We don't have it. Not this season at any rate. We can still eke out some dignity, maybe play spoiler to a few of those teams on the playoff bubble. But there are too many variables that can go all too wrong for us to preserve the streak for another year. Take the Sharks game just as an example. The Sens were cruising along great, matching San Jose stride for stride and with a 1-0 lead to show for their efforts. Then Brian Lee gets two successive penalties, the latter of which is turned into a double minor because he mouths off to the ref or gestures rudely at the ref or hell, I don't know what. Anyway, it's a four-minuter, and against the number-two powerplay in the League you know you're not getting out of this unscathed. And we didn't. Two goals, by Milan Michalek and Patrick Marleau respectively, was all it took. There was the game. You could've called it after the second period and there wouldn't have been any difference. As the postgame commentators later said, good teams find ways to win, and bad teams find ways to lose. It is, unfortunately, as simple as that.

I'm not going to complain about the refing, because I usually consider that rather pointless. Perhaps the penalty to Lee was unfair or perhaps it wasn't, but the fact remains that he has now been sent down to Binghamton and will, hopefully, learn from the mistake he made. He lost us the game and a lot of people were surprised at that, but I personally think that loss was just symptomatic of the much larger issue, the issue that's been going on since basically this time last year. We're better than we were at this time last year, in my humble opinion. We don't give up, and we are in almost every game right to the end since Cory Clouston took over. Nevertheless, it's not enough. Pure gumption does not suffice when you've worked your way into as big a hole as we have.

And for tonight? Geez, I don't know. I'm kind of going by the same axiom I've had for the last number of tilts: either it will be awesome, or it will be a massacre. Certainly the game will be exciting, but otherwise, who knows. I'd love to beat the Leafs, since Toronto losing always puts that little extra spring in my step. But if that doesn't happen, I will simply accept it as another bump in a season full of bumps. And I'll deal with the obnoxious Leafs fans. Goodness knows four straight years of playoff defeats - all of which I personally witnessed from Scotiabank Place - have trained me well.

Certainly SBP is a place I'll be seeing a lot of in the next week or so. I'll be at tonight's game, Tuesday's game and Thursday's game, and on Tuesday I'll be the season ticket holder of the game who gets to read out the attendance live on the big screen and win a nifty prize. I just hope my prize is better than the last one was - I really don't have room in my apartment for a couple of recliner chairs, thanks. All the same, I am of course grateful and excited for the opportunity!

We'll see. I feel like that should be the Senators' motto right now.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Close, but No Cigar: Senators 2, Avalanche 3 (OT)

(Source: AP)

Well, we tried. Maybe, in the end, that's the only thing that really matters.

Unfortunately the Senators slipped back into some bad habits last night, at least by my calculation. There were more defensive breakdowns than we've seen since Cory Clouston took over, and some of the boys seemed to make preventable mistakes. I hate to keep ragging on Jason Spezza here, since in general he's been the fans' whipping boy and I haven't agreed with that, but there were several gaffes that just stood out to me. I realize of course that not all these bad habits are going to be broken overnight, but it's just a little discouraging sometimes.

Overall this has been an amazing road trip, though, and I don't want to diminish the value of what the Sens have accomplished. After all, if you'd told me a week ago that they would go on a five-game winning streak and collect 12 of a possible 14 points on this mish-mashy road trip I would have paid your taxi fare to the nuthouse. It just didn't seem possible, even with a new coach and promises that accountability would be the primary byword from now on. (After all, didn't we Sens fans get treated to the same song and dance last summer, without result as it turns out?) I'd stopped thinking that maybe we'd hit rock bottom and then be on our way up; all I could hope for was to survive the rest of this season and then reap the rewards of a high draft pick.

Well, how quickly priorities change with even a sniff of the positive, eh? Suddenly we're thinking moves in the standings, possibly leapfrogging other teams, maybe playoffs and then after that, who knows! It's a mark of how starved most Ottawa fans were for any bit of optimism that the postgame shows went from being filled with rants and anger to high hopes and requests to the commentators to discuss the standings and our chances. Put simply, we're still a longshot for the playoffs and I know that. But, I am an optimist by nature, much moreso than many of my fellow fans, and so I was swept up and swept up hard.

And, because I am an optimist, I can't focus solely on the negatives from last night. Ryan Shannon scored just 30 seconds into last night's game to give the Sens a 1-0 lead, and you can bet it felt good to be dishing out the early goals rather than taking such punishment. Shannon also got the Sens' other goal, on the powerplay, and if not for some very timely saves from Andrew Raycroft I could be writing a much different blog post today. But the hockey gods decreed it be written as such, and despite taking the Avalanche to overtime we were disappointed when Wojtek Wolski (try saying that one five times fast!) scored 80 seconds into the extra frame.

I guess now I'll get my wish, though I didn't realize the hockey gods were listening when I made it - to see how Ottawa responds to a loss. Their next game is tomorrow at Scotiabank Place against the Vancouver Canucks, a match at which your blogger will be dutifully in attendance, and the Sens are absolutely going to have to be sharper and better and more mistake-free than they were in Colorado. As a plus, they won't be traveling through any more time zones after last night's trip and they won't have to cope with the much-discussed thin air in the Mile High City. But, the first game after a road trip is sometimes a stinker, so we'll see.

I, for one, am remaining dutifully optimistic. And I'm damn glad these late games are a thing of the past. Staying up after your bedtime, even when you happen to be taking a sick day the following day, kind of sucks.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Let's Make It Five, Baby: Senators 2, Predators 0

(Source: AP)

So, guys, I'm running out of positive superlatives here! Help me out?

Now, mind you, obviously I am happy about said lack of superlatives! Another Senators win was exactly what I needed after a crappy weekend overall and finding out that due largely to my own stupidity I missed out on an OBC liveblog tonight. I wanted nothing more than to curl up on the couch under my hockey blanket and watch a good solid effort, and thankfully the boys were happy to deliver.

I'm wondering more and more about this Cory Clouston dude - seriously, what is he putting in their Gatorade? The team that couldn't score is suddenly lighting it up in bunches; the team that couldn't skate is running rings around opponents. And they're having fun doing it! At several points tonight TSN showed the Sens' bench and they were smiling, grinning actually, laughing and joking with each other. It's awesome to see them so loose and happy.

Ottawa came out of the gate with passion and determination, and the Predators just couldn't come up with an answer for that. Nick Foligno seems like a man on a mission these days and he delivered again tonight, slipping the puck past Preds goalie Pekka Rinne for the game-winning goal. Then the big line ground into action and got rewarded, with Dany Heatley putting one in off a beautiful Jason Spezza feed. As excited as I was to see all this, I wasn't quite sure whether or not it could last. I expected we'd need at least another couple of goals to nail it down.

But once again the Sens surprised me. (I really should have learned by now not to have any expectations, particularly after the Minnesota game, but what can I say - old habits die hard.) In the second and third periods they simply clamped down, taking over the neutral zone completely and being masterful on the penalty kill. Nashville was barely able to get a sniff and when they did, either there was a defenseman down to block the shot or Alex Auld was there to stop it. And thus, another lovely two points earned.

Of course, there are still areas to work on and stuff that could be improved. Our power play was utterly abysmal this game, and in fact we allowed the Predators two or three shorthanded chances on which they could easily have scored were it not for Auld's brilliance. The plays that the Sens seem to be able to coordinate so well even strength and on the penalty kill somehow fall apart once we're a man up, and I'm willing to bet that we'd be no better on 5-on-3 were we given the opportunity. Still, it's a work in progress and I recognize that. And believe me, I am impressed enough with Clouston's impact on the boys already that I'm perfectly willing to handwave that sort of thing as long as we continue to improve.

Are the playoffs within our grasp at this point? Well, I don't know. That's one branch of optimism into which I'm not sure I can venture. The statistic I've heard quoted most often is that we'd need to win 21 of the next 28 games in order to amass enough points, and meanwhile other teams on the bubble would have to start losing. Certainly this has happened with Montreal, the New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins, but can it happen with all the other clubs we have to get by? Maybe. Maybe not.

Much as I hate to say it, I think one of the most telling things about these new Senators will be how they react when they do eventually lose in regulation time. It's bound to happen at some point, and I really hope it doesn't dash their confidence into pieces. I hope they remember what they've achieved and what can yet be achieved so that they can move on and we can work towards ending this Annus Horribilis.

That's my wish. It remains to be seen whether it will be granted.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Miracles Happen, Once in A While: Sens 5, Wild 3

(Source: Yahoo Sports)

Well. What to say about this one.

A game in which it looked like the end had been written before the beginning was five minutes old. A game in which the Good Guys were behind 3-0 by the end of the first period. A game in which your blogger is not ashamed to say she lost hope, and lost it fairly early on. After all, past experience hadn't exactly given her reason to be hopeful. She's an optimist by nature - bespeaking the title of her blog - but she is also a realist. And a realist could not have any perspective but that of, "Well, three to zip, that's it, it's over, they're not coming back."

But she forgot something. What she forgot is that this team is no longer the same team it was even two weeks ago. This is a team coached by Cory Clouston, who somehow, in some way, has the magic touch. We need to accept the fact that all our previous preconceptions mean almost nothing now. They'll lose more games, undoubtedly. Undoubtedly we'll play badly in the future. But for now, for tonight, we need to enjoy this. It's been a long time coming.

In the first period there was nothing to indicate that such a comeback might be in the offing. The Wild scored one minute and fifteen seconds into it and everything just went downhill from there. The defense was shaky, the offense was nonexistent and Brian Elliot ... well, the less said the better, unfortunately. He looked nervous right from the get-go and ended up letting in three goals on twelve shots. You could tell by the way he was handling the puck that he was not confident in either himself or his ability to stop much, and in my opinion he absolutely deserved to be pulled after the third goal went in. It really hurts to say that, but there you go. He had a bad game and I'm just glad that they didn't leave him in there to suffer; such a move could really have ended up hurting his confidence. Instead, in went Alex Auld, who proved himself rock-solid through the second and third.

What happened next ... well, you can quote all the incredible statistics you like. The commentators on Team 1200 are doing exactly that as I type these words. Before tonight Minnesota hadn't allowed a shorthanded goal all season at home. That's ALL SEASON. The Sens had never won a game after being down after a period. For all intents and purposes we should not be sitting here talking like we are. But, we are. Brian Lee and Antoine Vermette started off the fairy tale by scoring in the second, and just before the buzzer to end it Chris Phillips banged one in off a two-on-one, shorthanded. The game was tied 3-3.

I went into the kitchen to do the dishes between periods, and I hadn't quite finished as the game came back on. I didn't even see the goal that put us ahead; I just heard my boyfriend yelling from the living room and ran in with my hands still dripping to watch as Daniel Alfredsson, oh captain our captain, went down on another two-on-one, again shorthanded, and slipped the puck past Josh Harding (Nicklas Backstrom having been pulled earlier on) for a 4-3 lead. Unbelievable.

Of course I didn't think it would last. There was no way. The hockey gods had ratcheted up the tension and would surely dash our hopes against the rocks at their first opportunity. But somehow, as the commentators put it, we managed to out-Minnesota Minnesota. The boys clamped down defensively, while simultaneously making sure to get just enough offensive pressure to keep from being dominated completely. There were some nailbiting moments, absolutely, moments when I jumped off the couch swearing at them and screaming at them to PLEASE get it out or stop it or ... something. The Sens stood firm, though, and Dany Heatley's empty net goal put the icing on the cake for a 5-3 victory.

I honestly don't know what to say at this point. What to believe. Are we out of the woods? Really, truly out of the woods? Will our fortunes rise, probably not enough to carry us into the playoffs but maybe, just maybe, to provide us enough momentum to go into next season on a positive note? Will Clouston continue to work his magic? There isn't any reason to suspect that the answer to any of those questions is "no," but I've been burned too many times, coerced too many times into thinking we've hit rock bottom only to be proven brutally otherwise. Tonight, though, I think I deserve a treat, and so I will permit myself some of my vaunted optimism. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.

Have a drink, folks, on this Valentine's Day. A celebratory drink. Goodness knows we've earned it.

Note: 1) Congratulations to Shean Donovan, who played his 900th NHL game tonight! You couldn't have picked a better one, man. 2) I wasn't going to mention this before, because I am of course oh-so-modest about these sorts of things, but what the heck. We're all feeling good tonight, so I would like to point out that the Senators have not lost a game in regulation time since I began this blog. Yes, I AM TOTALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS STREAK OF AWESOMENESS, YO. Well, kidding, mostly. But I can gloat just a little.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Trifecta of Awesomeness

(Source: Nick Laham/Getty Images)

So, while I was buried up to my eyeballs in assignments for school, the Senators were busy quietly becoming awesome! I must admit, I'd forgotten exactly what it's like to win, to watch hockey because you think your team has a decent shot at doing well rather than because you simply enjoy the game and won't walk out on your team for anything. I will always watch the Sens, win lose or draw - which sounds like such a cliched thing to say, and yet it's how I feel. I've stuck with them through all the playoff failures, the losses in four straight to the Leafs (oh, the ribbing from my Leafs-loving cousin ...) and the debacle that was last year's fall from grace. And I can't really foresee a point at which I would not stick with them.

That being said, it is admittedly much easier to be a fan when your team is winning. And, to their credit, the Sens have done plenty of that lately. Of course the naysayers are still out in full force, saying that (among other things) it won't last, they're only winning because there's no more pressure on them, they'll probably win just enough games so as not to be eligible for the John Tavares sweepstakes, etc. But there will always be naysayers, because people will always want something to complain about. Seems to be the nature of human beings, unfortunately.

What surprised me is that among those naysayers happened to be one John Paddock. Now, while I think we can all agree that he'd be the perfect person to head the Support Group for Fired Coaches and Abandoned Goaltenders Formerly of the Ottawa Senators, I honestly did not expect him to go off the way he did. According to this article on, when asked by a reporter from the Camden Courier-Post to comment on recent events, Paddock said:

"I think now he's [Bryan Murray] next in line. We were 14 games over .500 when I was fired. They're seven under now. Somebody needs to take responsibility for that. ... The players are not very good, that's the problem."

Problem number one with these comments: Paddock is still technically employed by the Senators organization, in that they owe him some more salary. Problem number two is that the terms of his contract state he is not permitted to discuss team affairs with outsiders. Now, Murray says that Paddock since apologized to him in an email, so that affair appears to have blown over. But it sure got a lot of play on the postgame shows last night. With the team doing not so badly right now and Cory Clouston looking like a magician, perhaps it's only natural that there would be a bit of jealousy among former employees. Still, I was a little amazed that he would go this far.

No matter though - the important thing right now is that Ottawa seems to be doing better, much better, at least in the interim. They've capped off a three-game winning streak (their first this season!) with a decisive 5-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. This follows on from 3-2 and 3-1 wins against Buffalo. In all of those games they've looked more like their old selves than they have in over a calendar year. They're completing passes, concentrating on defense, taking chances, getting solid goaltending from Brian Elliot - in other words, all the things you need to do in order to record victories in the NHL.

Maybe this is nothing. Maybe it will end soon, and they won't win another game all season. But frankly I don't care right now. I'm just glad they're winning, however pointless that might seem right now.

Notes: 1) The aforementioned victories have not come without cost, unfortunately, as Chris Neil will be out for a while with a lacerated calf. Best wishes for his speedy recovery! 2) Posting will most probably be more regular from now on, as I'm on a one-week break from classes for Reading Week. I'm still getting into the swing of keeping up this blog while also juggling all my other commitments, and though it's not easy, I'll get there in the end!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

We Won! We Actually Won!: Sens 3, Sabres 2 (SO)

(Source: AP/Yahoo Sports)

There was an interesting statistic quoted by commentators on the Team 1200's post-game show last night: this season, the Senators have participated in 7 shootouts altogether. Of those, they've won 2 and collected 4 out of a possible 14 points. Now, imagine where we'd be if we had won all of those shootouts, or at least a few more than we have. An extra ten points would be pretty handy right about now!

Ah well, I suppose beggars can't be choosers. It's enough for my sanity right now that we won last night, amazingly, blowing a 2-0 lead early in the third period but then pulling one out come shootout time. Possibly Cory Clouston reads this blog (however wishful that may sound) and took note of my complaints after the Boston game, for the three shooters he selected at first were Jason Spezza (miss), Jarko Ruutu (goal) and el capitaine, Daniel Alfredsson (goal). Mike Fisher took care of business when it came to the extra round, just managing to slip it in top shelf past Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller.

Overall the game constituted another nearly-complete effort, something which, refreshingly, we seem to be seeing a lot of these days. One can definitely pick up on the fact that Clouston has a different style when it comes to both coaching and directives to his players; the boys are taking a lot more chances, yet are tighter defensively speaking. They're also getting more odd-man rushes and a lot more offensive zone time than they did previously. Last night I was heard to remark several times that the Sens actually reminded me of their old selves, of the way they used to be before all this nastiness went down, which reinforces the idea that they're in there somewhere - it's just a question of somehow bringing them back out.

Let us not forget, after all, that the core of the team is still intact. It's simply our defense and our ability to move the puck that's lacking. Not that those aren't important factors - our current position in the standings proves that they are - but they are also fixable, and I, for one, am damn glad Eugene Melnyk is smart enough not to "blow up" the team. Maybe he's not smart enough to avoid shooting his mouth off, but I agree with the message if not the means used to convey it: we've still got some good players, and there's no need to wreck the chemistry they're just starting to rediscover by trading one or more of them away.

Of course, a counter-argument could be made that since a playoff spot is most likely out of the question, the Senators are playing better with no pressure and really nothing to lose. The only role they can really have is as spoilers, ruining the chances other teams on the bubble have of making the playoffs. Perhaps that's true and perhaps it isn't - there's no way to tell right now. So I say, baby steps. That's all we can hope for at the moment. Baby steps. We didn't put ourselves in this position overnight and we're not going to get out of it overnight, but we can at least begin making the attempt to climb out of it.

There's still work to be done. Second periods haven't been as bad for the Sens lately, but there are still times when they zone out, to the detriment of game results. Exhibit A: the beginning of the third period last night, when they came out flat and allowed Buffalo to score two quick goals to tie it. They need to play full and complete games, without any times when they're wandering around like zombies.

But again, baby steps. Baby steps, people.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Ghosts of Defensemen Past ...

Okay, so you think it's enough that Zdeno Chara is now the captain of the Boston Bruins (who are, in turn, atop the Eastern Conference by 12 points) and that everyone and their brother and their dog can't seem to mention his name without also saying "Norris Trophy" in the same breath?

Well, you'd unfortunately be wrong.

Doug Fischer of The Ottawa Citizen, in an article aptly titled The big one that got away: Would things have been different with the Z?, states that according to Bryan Murray, both he and owner Eugene Melnyk wanted the Sens' then-GM, John Muckler, to find a way to keep both Chara and Wade Redden - and not only that, there was a chance this would actually be possible!

There have been suggestions since that, if the Senators had really wanted to keep Chara, they could have found the money elsewhere.

Before the free-agency period began on July 1, Muckler apparently came close to a deal to acquire goalie Vesa Toskala and two players from the San Jose Sharks for forwards Martin Havlat and Bryan Smolinski.

Had he made the trade, Muckler would not have had to sign free-agent goalie Martin Gerber, freeing $2.3 million per year that could have been applied to keeping Chara.

Look, I used to be a big Gerber fan. HUGE, as a matter of fact. He was a great goaltender in Carolina, and even after he came here and didn't do so well in 2006/07, I still favoured him over and above Ray Emery. Gerbs seemed more gracious somehow, more dignified, and behaved in a manner more befitting an NHL athlete. And, of course, once the whole "Darth Gerber" moniker was added, I couldn't help but continue my fannishness seeing as I'm a bred-in-the-bone Star Wars fan. Match made in heaven, you say? Absolutely!

Except ... well, it wasn't, and every Sens fan worth his or her salt knows how the Gerber experiment ended. I honestly thought he could regain his confidence and become the A-List goaltender we all hoped he had the potential to be, but he didn't, and Murray shipped him out of town as soon as that became evident. Our brief "affair" ended there, and I haven't thought of Gerber much since.

But this hurts. This really, really hurts. Knowing what Chara has done for the Bruins and understanding that we could have kept him hurts, cuts really deep, in a coulda-woulda-shoulda kind of way. Hindsight is 20/20, and I get that, but there's no hiding from the plain and simple fact that Muckler screwed us. He did. Maybe he went for Gerber because the latter had a Stanley Cup ring to his name, but that overlooks the fact that Gerbs hardly ever played the year the Hurricanes won the Cup. He was essentially an untested playoff goaltender, and he did not end up getting us to the Finals. Emery did that.

They say everything happens for a reason. That might be true and it might not. But as a Sens fan who will in all likelihood be on the outside looking in when it comes to the 2009 playoff run, I'm having a tough time seeing that reason.