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Sizing Up the Round Two Competition
posted May 1, 2006 at 12:07PM

Well as we wait for the remaining first round series to finish up, one can only watch and begin to imagine who our next opponent will be and wonder what challenges will that team present. Mathematically we will face one of three teams in Round 2.

Montreal. Are fortunate that they ran into a Gerber who was as sick as a dog, and came away with two road victories to start the series. The minute Gerber was replaced, the series took on a whole new tone, all set by Montreal's inability to score goals. Outside of Kovalev, and to a lesser degree, Ryder, Montreal is not blessed with truly skilled and dangerous forwards. Their power-play has been atrocious, and their PK has let them down at key points during the series. Five on five they display good team speed and are well coached by Bob Gainey. Their defence are prone to breakdowns, and have defencemen who can actually be beaten consistently one on one. Their major strength has been in nets with Huet putting in an outstanding performance. There are no "easy" goals on Huet.

Do we want to play them? Sure. Mind you I don't like the fact that there will be legions of the other team's fans at our home games, but it would be hard to see how we could lose a series. Even if we just played them even on five on five, we would gain the clear upper-hand on special teams play. In then end we are still faster, have more weapons, and have a better defence corps. They may have an edge in goal-tending but it is not enough to tip the balance.

Montreal are currently in tough, having lost three straight games to Carolina. But Huet has kept the games close and with a little puck luck Montreal could still pull this one out.

Philadelphia. I have been "rooting" for Philadelphia to tap dance their way through Round One because I think they would be a much easier opponent than most people would think. The fact is they are fortunate that this series is still going on, having been completely outplayed by Buffalo. If the latter could actually have cashed in on a few breakaways in Game 4, then this series would be over. Yes Philadelphia has some truly good, if not great players, but as a team, they are as slow as oxen. The Buffalo series has shown how vulnerable they are to a team with speed and good passing ability.

I know we have had some of our worst moments of the season against Philadelphia, but to me they were anomalies that won't occur in the play-offs. Most of our difficulties occurred when we went into Philadelphia in true "lines that suck" mode, and got our lunch handed to us. But even within those games, when Murray shortened the bench we immediately began dictating the play.

Although I think the lines we have now are not as good as they could be, they certainly don't fall into the lines that suck category. There is no way they could handle our sustained speed and I think there would be a good chance that Philadelphia would literally start crumbling before our eyes. The fact is, that they have never faced us at our best, and they know that.

No doubt Hitchcock would play his mind games, and one could expect lots of implied threats, especially against Havlat. Havlat is the kind of player that I think terrifies them. Remember too that in playoffs, we are in their heads in a way that Toronto is in ours. The minute they start falling behind, they would be forced to fight off this sense of inevitability that they just don't have the tools to beat us. It would become increasingly difficult to do, because the reality is that they don't.

Buffalo. The way things are shaping up, it looks like Carolina and Buffalo will win their respective series and Buffalo will become our next opponent. In my opinion, of the remaining teams, they are the most dangerous to us. There are no obvious vulnerabilities here to exploit.

They have the complete package. Good team speed, good offensive skill, nice depth. Good special teams. Two good goalies. Skilled mobile defence. As I have mentioned before they are a well "organized" team. They are put together in a manner that makes sure every bit of their talent can be brought to bear in a game. It is in this area that they currently enjoy their chief advantage over us. They are also a team that is currently playing very well. Like I said if they had a little puck luck their series would be over.

So can we beat them? Yes of course. The regular season showed that not only can we beat them, we can dominate play while doing so. In fact, maybe because they are a similar team to us, we do tend to play our best hockey with them. Whatever they have, we have...except what we have is just a little bit faster, and better, and more talented. The only area of debate would be in nets. For now I would declare that area to be a draw. There is no doubt however that their back up is better than ours.

So yes we can beat them, but the margin for error is a lot smaller than with a Tampa Bay.

One our defence, as a group, has to play much stronger on the body, and with the puck, especially the latter. One can live with Spezza coughing up the puck in their zone, it just comes with the package; but having our defence coughing up the puck in our end, like they did against Tampa, will be death against Buffalo.

With all due respect to Alfredson, "30 or 40 good minutes" may be good enough against Tampa Bay, but against Buffalo we need the full 60.

Our five on five play needs to be greatly improved. Quite frankly our five on five play against Tampa was much more even than I would have liked. Only the Fisher line demonstrated the ability to consistently carry the play to the other side. The rest played it pretty even, and we won on the basis of better goaltending and special teams superiority.

We can beat Buffalo, but we need to be the best team that we can be, and the biggest step in that direction is to put the Big Line back together, and putting Vermette somewhere (third or fourth line) where he can play centre. We do have more talent and skill in Buffalo but we need to make sure we are maximizing that talent. If anything the series against Tampa just confirms to me that the arguments for splitting up the best line in hockey just doesn't hold water.

The rationale for splitting the Big Line up goes along two main branches.

Defense. Putting Kelly or Vermette with Spezza/Heatley give them a defensive conscious. Maybe but that falls through the minute you remember that Alfredson is our very best two way player, and probably our mostly highly skilled defensive player. There is a reason why Alfredson is the first one on the ice when we are two men short.. In other words Alfredson is already better than Vermette and/or Kelly in providing that defensive conscious. Indeed the +/- ratings for Spezza/Heatley started taking a shallow dive the minute Alfredson was no longer with them during the regular season..

Offense. The other rationale for splitting the Big Line up, is to spread the scoring around. But that only works if the parties involved actually keep on scoring. So let's take a look at relevant players.

Smolinski and Eaves got one goal each, so it's not like they caught on fire playing with Alfredson. Vermette has two goals, but one of them was with Varada on the ice. Only one of his goals was while playing with Heatley and Spezza. Compare that with when he was with Kelly and Schubert where he scored four goals in five games. It is not that Kelly and Schubert are better players: it is just their styles are more compatible. Spezza/Heatley are all about forcing the defense to go in one direction and then cutting against the flow, whereas Vermette is more about trying to use his advantage in straight away speed. There were several occasions when Vermette was in the open, but Spezza's first instinct is to do the no look behind the back pass to Heatley in double coverage.

Heatley and Spezza wracked up big points against Tampa, but that was mostly on the powerplay. Between the two of them they scored only one even-strength goal, that bravura individual effort by Spezza in Game 4. Alfredson has only that empty-netter from Game 1.

So basically we have Heatley-Spezza-Alfredson producing only one real, even strength goal between them in five games, against an inferior team.

Another aspect is face-offs. Right now Vermette is our best, most consistent face-off man, but we have him playing wing instead of his natural position of center. One of the reasons the fourth line was so effective in the first two games was because we were starting each shift with the puck.

This tactic of playing the other team even on five on five, and then depending on special teams to carry the day, is a hold-over from the Jacques Martin play-book and should be discarded. It has never worked in the past, and I see no reason why it will start now. One of the elements that made Ottawa such a dominant force in the early part of the season, was not just our special teams, but our ability to score goals five on five. The pundits keep bringing that stat up every time they talk about the Senators. But the chief reason for all of those even strength goals was the 300 point Big Line.

It is not like all of our scoring depth would just disappear. You still have almost 90 regular season goals being scored by the remaining players that you can "distribute" between the third and fourth lines.

Again, nothing in sport in guaranteed, but I do feel our margin for error in a series against Buffalo with our current line combinations gets pretty tight. A few bad goals, bad calls, bad bounces could shift the series one way or the other. Better to have the odds stacked on our side of the ledger right from the start.

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