The Ottawa Senators players, managers, and team owner Eugene Melnyk all had one goal coming into the season –
make the playoffs and contend for the Stanley Cup. Little did they know that after two games, a 2-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres and a 5-1 beating from the Toronto Maple Leafs, the “one goal” theme would be scoring one goal per game.
There were several questions surrounding this team during the summer and pre-season, at the top of the list; will either goaltender step up and claim the job of number one goalie? Despite the 5-1 score in Toronto, the one problem the Senators do not have after two games is goaltending. Pascal Leclaire has been outstanding in the Ottawa net.
After two sub-par, injury filled seasons, Leclaire has been the lone bright spot on this team, making the poor performances from the rest of the lineup even more disheartening. When your goaltender is clearly demonstrating he is ready for a bounce-back year, having only 12 shots on net through two periods of each game is not the way to express your appreciation for his efforts. Facing Ryan Miller, Buffalo’s all-world goaltender, the Senators managed only three shots in the second period. Numbers like that do not lead a team to victory. Leclaire’s GAA may be 3.53, but in two games, he has already faced 74 shots. He deserves a better fate then his 0-2 win/loss record, but while a goalie can steal you a game, he cannot do the job by himself night after night.
The line of Jarkko Ruutu, Chris Kelly, and Chris Neil has picked up where they left off in the playoffs, with Kelly scoring the lone goal against Buffalo. Neil worked a puck off the boards, a beautiful pass from “Mr. Zamboni” himself, Jarkko Ruutu to Chris Kelly and the Sens and the Sabres were tied at 1-1 after two periods. Unfortunately, Derek Roy spoiled the party with his second goal of the game in the third to finish off the Sens. Without Jason Spezza for the season opener, it was easy to write-off the loss, take heart in Leclaire’s stellar performance, and prepare for the Leafs on Saturday evening.
Once again, Leclaire was the lone Senator to hear the opening bell, as he made several great saves, limiting the damage to two goals after the Maple Leafs jumped all over Ottawa right from the start. The rejuvenated Leafs used their team speed to forecheck Ottawa’s defence into numerous mistakes. Long-time Ottawa defensive stalwart Chris Phillips has been caught flat-footed on almost every goal in the two games; Erik Karlsson has not been the outstanding offensive-defenceman from the playoffs of last season. Instead, he appears to have succumbed to the pressures of being a top-four D-man. The pair are a combined -5 after two games.
The team appears to be struggling to make the adjustment of being a defensively responsible team, to an offensive, puck-possession team. Simply having Sergei Gonchar on the power play does not make your power play better, you still have to work hard and get pucks on the net. Ottawa is 0-9 with the man advantage. Their lack of effort and attention to detail at times has been costly as well, penalized 10 times through the opening two games. Matt Carkner and Brian Lee have performed well on defence, Carkner finding his regular dance partner (Colton Orr) for a scrap in Toronto last night. While it is early in the season, should Mike Fisher have more penalty minutes then your heavyweight defenceman? Lee and Carkner have earned more ice time then Phillips and Karlsson, which is one of the many surprises revealed in the first two games.
Unlike the NFL pre-season, where the starting lineup plays the first quarter, or the first half, the NHL pre-season games are a mix of prospects, AHL players, with a handful of NHL regulars. While it is important to avoid injuries when the games do not count, it is vital to create some cohesion on a team changing to a puck-possession style of game. In fact, last night’s 5-1 loss in Toronto was the first time Ottawa dressed their full lineup – and it looked like it. Seven pre-season games and the season opener against Buffalo, and this was the first look at the “real” team…
The schedule does not get any easier for the Senators, as they take on Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals on Monday, before returning home to face the Carolina Hurricanes (Thursday), the Montreal Canadiens (Saturday), and then Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins (Monday). Two games into an 82-game schedule is not the time to hit the “panic” button, but it is certainly time for the offence to stop hitting the “snooze” button.
Expect to see Brian Elliott to get his first start of the season, perhaps in Washington, not because Pascal Leclaire is not getting the job done, simply to save him and his growing confidence from his own team.
Andrew Rodger is an independent sports columnist and member of the Canadian Association of Journalists. Along with operating The Voice of Sport, he covers the Ottawa Senators and writes the “Ask the Alumni” series here at The Hockey Writers. He is the resident writer for the NHL Alumni Association and a contributor on CBC News Now.