Senators Struggling Against the NHL’s Elite Teams

Spezza Ready for Bruins (slidingsideways/Flickr)

Heading into last night’s game at Scotiabank Place between the Ottawa Senators and the Vancouver Canucks, both teams were red-hot. The Montreal Canadiens had ended Vancouver’s six game winning streak, but the Canucks were 6-1 in their last seven games, as were the Senators; riding a four game winning streak of their own. One team would stay hot; another would be cooling down after this match-up.

The Canucks cruised to a 6-2 victory, powered by a two-goal performance from Ryan Kesler and four goals in the final period to seal Ottawa’s fate. With Pascal Leclaire making his first start since October 14th, it did not take Vancouver long to get on the board; taking the lead just 22 seconds into the game on a goal by #22, Daniel Sedin. Oddly enough, the Sedins would get the assist on Alex Burrows’ first of the year just 33 seconds into the third, which is Henrik’s #.

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While the Senators have jumped from 14th in the Eastern Conference into a playoff position with their newfound confidence, there is still some cause for concern in Ottawa. In October and November, it is difficult to say that any game is a “must win” situation, but there are “have to win” games. If the Senators are to be an elite team in the East, they have to win against certain teams, which they have been doing, but it is time to defeat some of the NHL’s elite teams too.

Ottawa has defeated teams like the New York Islanders, Phoenix Coyotes, Atlanta Thrashers, and the struggling Buffalo Sabres. When it comes to taking on the top teams in the league, even the elite teams that are struggling this season, they have fallen short on almost every occasion, losing to the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins.

With an 8-7-1 record, the Senators are facing a difficult 5-game stretch (the first four are on the road), against the Bruins, Flyers, Hurricanes, Blues and Kings. To continue building on their growing confidence, the team is once again facing several “have to win games” and a defensive effort like the one they gave on Thursday against the Canucks will not be enough to beat teams like the Bruins and Flyers.

Head coach Cory Clouston met with the Ottawa media this morning (available on Twitter) and addressed some issues from the Vancouver game, and looked ahead to the Boston Bruins.

“We just have to shoot the puck more,” said Clouston. “Last night we had a couple of opportunities in the second period where we had real good opportunities to shoot the puck and we tried to be a little bit too cute with it. We’ve got to put more pucks at the net.”

“Against a team like Boston tomorrow night, they don’t give you a lot. So, if you get an opportunity you can’t pass it up; you’ve got to keep things simple.”

One bright spot for the Senators during their recent winning streak and moving forward is the line combination of Alex Kovalev, Jason Spezza, and Peter Regin. Since his return from a groin issue, Spezza has fuelled the Ottawa offence with a three-point night and a four-point night in his last four games. Kovalev looks interested again, slowly making his way to the 1,000 career point plateau (he is at 998 after picking up an assist last night), but it his effort away from the puck that has been impressive. He is skating well and working hard, which is exactly what the Senators need from him. Regin scored his first goal of the season and added an assist in last night’s game, bringing his point total for the season to nine.

Defensive breakdowns continue to plague the Senators and Clouston addressed the issue today.

“Scoring chances last night were 13-12 for them (Vancouver), they capitalized on their chances,” said Clouston. “The big thing is with the two goals early on in the third period, we just didn’t break the puck out the way we needed too. Twice we had opportunities on both goals to get the puck out with control and we just didn’t execute. They capitalized on our mistakes.”

The next five games will take the Senators past the all-important 20 game point of the season; will they be in a playoff position at the end of this stretch of games or continuing to search for consistency? It is one thing to beat the teams you “have to win” against, it is time for the Senators to start beating up on the rest of the league. If they fail to find the next gear in their play, expect to see some roster changes on the horizon.

Image Resource: Slidingsideways on Flickr