A Tale Of Two Teams
posted Dec 24, 2005 at 02:10AM
Nov 30, 2005 is looming ever larger in the history of the Senator's 2005-06 Campaign. On that day the Senators went from being the dominant team in the NHL, to a mediocre team whose life expectancy in playoff hockey has suddenly shortened considerably.
On Nov 30 the Senators shut out the Canadians 4-0 - just another display of overwhelming speed and talent. Up to that point Ottawa had lost only 2 of its first 22 games. They were pulverizing opposition teams, leading the league in every offensive and defensive category. Media pundits kept reveling in "how easy" the Senators made it look. It is not just that they dominated games, the did it with style. "Do the Senators ever score an ugly goal?" asked one commentator during a recap of game highlights. The enthusiasm was infectious. Interviews with Senators players inevitably came with the comment on "how much fun we're having playing hockey". In short all of the intangible forces which seemed to always stand in the way of the Senator's quest for the Cup seemed to have been dealt with.
It was too good to be true.
During that game Antoine Vermette, one of the most offensively talented and yet underrated players in the league, was called three time for interference penalties. The next day an Ottawa Sun article talked about how Vermette was now in Murray's "doghouse" and that he would be relegated to the fourth line. Varada, whose agent had been making public complaints about his lack of ice time, was moved up.
On the next day, 01 Dec, the Senators were inexplicably shut out by the Boston Bruins - a team which they had whipped only days before, and were now minus Joe Thornton, their best player.
Thus the New Senators came to life. Since that fateful move, the Senators have lost 5 out of 10. Gone were the long periods of puck possession and sustained pressure in the opposition zone. We could no longer score goals against good teams - a fact everyone has glossed over because we exploit teams with weak goaltenders. But we won't be playing these teams in the playoffs.
Even some of our victories or periods of good play have a certain pattern to them. The game with LA was an even affair, with the Kings pressing hard to tie the game up. It was a short-handed goal by Vermette which broke that game in our favour. The game with Toronto was tied 1-1 mid-way through the game - only when an injury allowed Vermette a regular shift on the third line, did the Senators come alive. Given a singular chance to play on the power play Vermette responded with a goal and an assist. Ottawa's rebound in the game against Philadelphia also coincided with Vermette being moved up to a regular shift on the third line where he contributed a goal.
This is no coincidence and there should be no doubt that Ottawa has been a different team since Nov 30. Consider the post game commentary from Dean Brown who called the Islanders game Dec 23rd: He talked about how the Senators "managed" the third period, dumping the puck in and taking no chances...playing within a "game plan".
In other words they were laying back and sitting on their lead allowing the opposition to press the attack. One understands now how we blew a three goal lead with the Canadians.
This is a dramatic shift in philosophy when compared to the Senators at the beginning of the year. Remember then how Murray specifically spoke about not sitting on leads, but continuing to lay the pressure on
Consider the changes just in television coverage. Before Nov 30, the national TV media, despite an inherent Toronto bias, had no choice but to cover the Senators. You knew the Senators were great because they could not be ignored.. Now they don't even get mentioned on the pre-game shows, even on the channel (Sportsnet) which is carrying the game!
Whereas before 30 Nov, line-ups were cast in stone (and why change when things are going well), after Nov 30 lines are being modified almost on a period by period basis.
Of course there is no more talk about "having fun". Not now. There were no smiles as they left the ice in New York..but a haunted look in the eyes that said they won the game but something was still not right and hasn't been right for awhile. There is definitely something going behind the scenes here. The last time I saw these kind of expressions on Ottawa faces, was when Martin was benching Spezza during the playoffs with Toronto.
One of these Ottawa teams has what it takes to win the Cup, and there is one that won't survive the first round. It's a simple matter of choosing what works over what doesn't.