By Al Willig
Here we are again; for the 4th time in six seasons, the Senators and Penguins will line up in the playoffs. Lest anyone forget, the Senators dispatched of the Penguins in 2007 en route to the Stanley Cup Finals and lost to the Penguins in the opening round in each of the 2008 and 2010 playoffs; rather unceremoniously in 2008. The 2007 series is a distant memory for many Sens supporters and in reality, none of those series has a huge bearing on the current playoffs since only four members of the current Senators were active through that time period. Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Phillips, Jason Spezza and Chris Neil are the only holdovers from all three meetings, with Erik Karlsson and Zack Smith joining the 2010 series as rookies along with Milan Michalek who had arrived via trade that season. The current team, in almost no way, resembles the team that faced the Penguins in 2007. Alfredsson is 41 and while he is still a character player and a major influence off the ice, he is no longer the point/game performer he once was. Chris Phillips has shown all the veteran savvy in these playoffs that we have come to expect but he is also on the downside of his career and no longer capable of shutting down Player 87 as he once was. Spezza is still recovering from back surgery, so while it looks as though he may be able to return at some point in this series (no one in the Senators organization is committing to that, but all signs are pointing that way), there is no way to know how effective he can be. Karlsson has been effective at times in these playoffs but while he is still fast, he is not as fast and doesn’t reach top speed in 2 strides as he did prior to the injury (an injury which we are simply going to leave alone in this posting).
The Senators struggle to score goals and that was the least of the worries in 2007. I know you can look back through the box scores from the series with the Canadiens and say “what do you mean, Al? they scored 20 goals in 5 games.” What I mean is that the Senators scored 6 goals in two games after the Canadiens had thrown in the towel. The Senators were dominated by the Canadiens in 11 of 16 periods they played; perhaps not dominated on the scoreboard in all cases, but certainly both in the pace of play and territorially. They were soft on the puck, struggled to get the puck out of defensive zone and terrible in transition when they did; none of which excites me when considering the upcoming matchup against a team that is far superior to the Montreal Canadiens who are smaller and softer than the Penguins and had many more bodies on IR than the Penguins do.
This brings me to a line from the movie Apollo 13 where the Ed Harris’ character, following the onboard explosion, says “Let’s look at this in terms of status. What on the spacecraft is good?” The answer starts from the net and moves out from there, much as many teams try to build their squads. Craig Anderson has been other-worldly for the Senators displaying a 1.80 GAA and .950 Sv%. He has kept the Senators in games for the 40 minutes they seem to struggle and lets them find their groove. I am on record as being no great fan of Andy and I am not going to run away from that now, but there is no denying what he has meant to this team both in the regular season and in the playoffs. Keep proving me wrong, Mr. Anderson!
Next, the defensive corps has been largely stellar. The return of Jared Cowen has had a major impact on the physicality of the group. He is 6’5”, strong, and tough as nails. No one gets to occupy the same rarified air as Zdeno Chara did, but Cowen is as close as the Senators have come since Big Z took his leave of the team. Marc Methot and Eric Gryba are also very big boys who play solid defensively and look to punish the opponent. Karlsson and Gonchar had 6 and 4 points respectively in the Canadiens series so are fulfilling their roles respectably in that regard. Phillips, as mentioned before, has been a solid, calming influence on the team and seems to make the right play at the right time, even jumping into the play when warranted. As a unit, they have been very good at clearing the front of the net of pucks and bodies. The one downfall of the entire group has been their inability to find the exit from the defensive zone while still maintaining control of the puck.
As far as the forward group is concerned, the very best I can say is that they are hitting and then hitting some more. In my estimation, it is this physicality that has allowed the Senators to dominate play and the scoreboard in the third and overtime periods. The Senators outscored Montreal 13-0 after 40 minutes of play. Certainly, there are forwards on the team who are not adept at the hitting game; players such as Kyle Turris, but on balance it has been a very good group in this regard.
Speaking of Mr. Turris; he led the Senators in scoring in the regular season but that is not saying a whole lot. He had 29 points in 48 games which has to be some sort of (negative) record in Points per Game for a team making the playoffs. Turris is the player who stands to get the most benefit from a possible return of Jason Spezza as the Penguins would more likely match their better defenders against him than Turris. I am not going to say this one change will impact the outcome of the series, but it certainly cannot hurt the Senators.
From a 10,000 foot view, it would seem almost impossible that the Senators would beat the Penguins in this series (and Vegas seems to agree). And, I do not expect them to beat the Penguins in this series, but hope is a good thing, right? The Senators cannot and will not try to run and gun with the Penguins as the Islanders did. They are going to have to rely on frustrating them physically and with their play around the net and then hope to score 1 more goal than the Penguins have scored. They need to do this 4 times; stranger things have happened.