Sens split before second trip
Plenty of room for optimism and doubt for this group
The Senators returned home early Sunday morning, to unpack and repack before heading back out on the road.
To the legion of fans who watched the team during two wild games on the weekend, a 1-0 victory in Buffalo Friday and a 5-4 shootout loss to the Maple Leafs Saturday, this question: Is your glass half empty or half full on the Senators early days?
There is plenty of room for both optimism and doubt with this group.
First the optimism. Coming home with three of four points is solid. Nothing wrong with pulling that off every road trip. The new captain, Jason Spezza, got on the scoreboard, and the Kyle Turris line was Ottawa’s best, by far, in Toronto.
Goaltending shouldn’t be an issue. Craig Anderson was nothing short of brilliant in a 35-save shootout of the Sabres, leaving Thomas Vanek looking skyward in disbelief at the number of scoring chances snuffed out by No. 41.
And if four goals in regulation, plus two in the shootout — one of them a dubious spin, stop, spin move by Mason Raymond — seems like a lot, you had to be there. Anderson was left on his own too often, and couldn’t really be faulted on any of the Maple Leaf goals.
Now we’re getting into the room-for-improvement area. For long stretches of both games, the Senators played looser than the straps on Patrick Lalime’s goalie pads back in the day. Anderson faced 77 shots in two nights, not counting the shootout. Friday, the Senators and Sabres exchanged more shots in a goalless period than any two teams this side of the 1967 NHL expansion program.
You just know that head coach Paul MacLean will be preaching a tighter style of play as the Senators embark Monday on a four-game western swing with games in Los Angeles (Wednesday), San Jose (Saturday), Anaheim (Sunday) and Phoenix (Tuesday).
“We can’t keep playing that way and hope to have success,” MacLean said.
Winger Bobby Ryan, playing in his first two Eastern Conference games, was astounded by the back and forth transition play, a dramatic shift from the Western Conference “half court” game that is predicated on tough, hard defensive play in each zone.
The line of Ryan, Spezza and Milan Michalek generated 15 shots against the Sabres and had another seven against Toronto, but were sometimes taken advantage of by the gritty Leafs. Ryan said he was “pushed outside” quite often and wants to see his line get pucks deep and go to work.
“We’re all three big bodies,” Ryan said. “We should be able to hold onto the puck down there.”
With Spezza-Ryan-Michalek the focus of Toronto’s first line of defence, Turris and his wingers, Clarke MacArthur and Cory Conacher exploited the second tier.
Turris was simply the best Senators player, sweeping up ice with the puck and creating chances almost at will. He finished with a goal and two first assists, narrowly missing a pass that would have sent him in alone late in the frantic third period. Earlier, Conacher scored on a jam play and MacArthur put four shots on his former team, but will have to wait for his sweet-revenge goal.
Turris and MacArthur were both plus-three on the night. Conacher was plus-two.
“It’s a building block as a line,” Turris said. “We have some chemistry and we’re coming together. We feel pretty good together.
“There’s lots of stuff we still have to work on, be a bit smarter at times. Get pucks deep. We’re moving in the right direction.”
Defensively, the Senators had to scramble as play got out of control. But as Spezza explained after the Buffalo game, because offensive chances such as 2-on-1 rushes were getting stopped by both teams, the play quickly turned around up ice for a chance the other way. On it went. Entertaining. Risky.
For the most part, defenceman Jared Cowen had a strong game against the Leafs, showing better mobility than we saw during the playoffs last spring when he returned from hip surgery.
Only Erik Karlsson played more minutes than Chris Phillips’ 23:43, partly due to the penalties the Senators took, which Phillips was on to help kill. Toronto’s power play finished 2-for-4, including a crucial goal late in the second period by Joffrey Lupul. That was the uh-oh moment as a 4-2 lead disappeared.
Lack of discipline goes hand in hand with casual play.
Turris says the players know they have to tighten up defensively.
“It’s two games into a long season,” he said. “We’re going to work on it and we’re going to get better. We want to spend less time in our zone, is a big thing. That will help our defence look better too by just getting out quicker.”
The same Karlsson who had Senators fans rising out of their sofas with his mad rushes and daring pinches against the Sabres, had them fretting over his occasional vulnerability in the Leaf game.
During his recovery from a torn Achilles tendon last spring, Karlsson was vulnerable to outside speed. And while he is skating more like the Karlsson of two years ago, he did have some issues defending, including a burst by Phil Kessel that left him reaching while Kessel drove the net.
Overall, a decent start by the new-look Senators, but there were enough standby passengers to make some wonder how long it will be before Mika Zibanejad gets the call from Binghamton.
MacLean said he sat in on an off-season coaches’ conference call in which the spinarama-style goals in a shootout or penalty shot came under attack. It was his assumption, if a player stopped his forward progress the goal could be disallowed. However, after Raymond scored following a 360-degree move on Anderson, officials told the Senators the play was OK because the puck remained in motion. MacLean wasn’t happy.
“I think it’s a very unfair play for the guy to come in and blow snow on the goaltender,” MacLean said. “To me, he came to a full stop, the puck went backwards and then forwards.
“But that’s me, I’m only a fisherman from Nova Scotia. So I don’t know nothin’ about nothin’.”
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