As the month of January begins, the arrival of 2012 marks the midpoint of the current NHL season. Predictably, the NHL’s elite teams have risen to the top of the standings, with the New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers all jostling for overall supremacy. A similar battle continues to rage slightly lower down the standings, with several teams fighting for coveted spots in the Eastern and Western Conference playoffs.
Many prominent NHL experts may be shocked to learn that the fledgling Ottawa Senators are very much in playoff contention as December comes to a close. Boasting an offensive attack that has registered just nine goals less than the powerful Canucks, Ottawa currently ranks above perennial Eastern powers like the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs, sitting in a tie for 6th place in the conference.
Surefire Coach of the Year candidate Paul MacLean has been a revelation, and goaltender Craig Anderson has slowly rebounded from his early-season struggles to bring some stability to the Ottawa crease over the last two months. Perhaps I’m hole-identification challenged, but if the Senators can remain healthy and tighten up a defensive corps that ranks 29th in goals against in the NHL, they have as good a shot as any fringe Eastern team to clinch a playoff spot.
Record: 7-5-3. (Currently 19-15-5. 2nd in Northeast Division. T-6th in Eastern Conference. T-13th in NHL.)
Leading Scorers: (December) – (Total)
Daniel Alfredsson (15 GP: 6 G, 11 A, 17 PTS) – (33: 11-16-27)
Jason Spezza (15 GP: 4 G, 11 A, 15 PTS) – (39: 13-25-38)
Erik Karlsson (15 GP: 4 G, 9 A, 13 PTS) – (39: 5-30-35)
Jared Cowen (15 GP: 2 G, 7 A, 9 PTS) – (39: 4-7-11)
Nick Foligno (15 GP: 4 G, 4 A, 8 PTS) – (39: 11-11-22)
After earning 11 of a possible 14 points in their final seven games of November, the Senators started slowly in December, ceding a one-goal lead in the third period to fall 3-2 to the Dallas Stars and allowing a goal just 12 seconds into overtime against the Washington Capitals. They would bounce back with a strong effort against the Tampa Bay Lightning, winning 4-2 on the strength of two goals from Zack Smith, before losing three straight games in demoralizing fashion, falling 5-3 to Washington, 5-4 (in a shootout) to the New Jersey Devils and 4-1 to the Vancouver Canucks.
The Sens would split two games with divisional rivals, topping Buffalo 3-2 in overtime and falling 5-2 to the champion Boston Bruins. A brief winning streak would follow, with Ottawa scoring 14 total goals in victories over the Pittsburgh Penguins, Buffalo (once again) and the Florida Panthers. Craig Anderson’s tumultuous season was characterized by two consecutive losses to Carolina and Montreal; the first in which he was spectacular, stopping 36 shots and falling 2-1 in overtime, before conceding four goals on seven shots to the Canadiens four nights later.
Ottawa would cap off 2011 with two straight emotional victories, coming back from a three-goal deficit to top the Calgary Flames in the final home game of the calendar year, before rallying to beat Buffalo for the third time in December, claiming a 3-2 shootout victory on New Year’s Eve.
Player of the Month
After posting just two points through his first 25 NHL games, hulking rookie defenseman Jared Cowen showcased his unforeseen offensive potential in December, potting two goals and totaling nine points in 15 games. Cowen shone during the absence of veteran Filip Kuba and Sergei Gonchar, regularly logging over 25 minutes a night on the first defensive pairing with Erik Karlsson. Cowen’s new partner continued to display his prodigious offensive ability, adding nine assists in December to push his total to 30 on the year. (Karlsson ranks second in the league in assists, an astonishing feat for a defenseman of any age.) Nick Foligno carried much of the team’s offensive load in the early part of December, while Jason Spezza scored 10 points in six games from December 8th to 20th.
No Senator could match the captain in December, however. Daniel Alfredsson returned from injury on November 11th, but only managed three points in the month’s eight remaining games. As soon as the calendar flipped, Alfredsson flipped on the offensive switch, registering five multi-point games (including two three-point efforts). No Senator has produced as much offense in a month as Alfredsson did in December, combined with his ever-steady defensive effort and penchant for coming through in the clutch. Alfredsson continues to embody the Senators franchise, proving the doubters wrong during his 16th NHL season.
Goal of the Month
Nick Foligno enjoyed the finest offensive stretch of his pro career in early December, notching points in six consecutive games from November 29th to December 8th. Foligno’s streak was highlighted by his second-period goal on December 7th against Washington. After taking a pass at the blue line and bursting past an exhausted Dennis Wideman, Foligno cut to the middle of the ice, eluded another Washington defender, stepped around Bobby Butler (who took out another Capitals skater), cut behind the net and, using one hand, slipped the puck past goaltender Tomas Vokoun and under a prone Wideman.
Foligno’s goal, of course, was not the most memorable of the month. That honour belongs to Alfredsson, who capped off a 4-3 comeback victory over the Calgary Flames on December 30th with his 400th career NHL goal. Alfie’s marker, a bullet from the point to seal the game in overtime, was remarkable for far more than the milestone he achieved. Consider the following:
- The goal was Alfredsson’s 11th of the season.
- Earlier in the game, Foligno and Zack Smith both scored their 11th goals of the season.
- Alfredsson’s goal was scored 1:11 into a Senators power play.
- Alfredsson’s goal was scored at 10:11pm.
- Alfredsson’s goal clinched the Senators’ 11th home victory of the season.
- The Calgary game was Ottawa’s 11th sellout of the season.
The significance of these points should need no explanation. If Alfredsson maintains his current goal-scoring pace for the rest of the season, he’ll finish 2011-12 with 411 career goals.
Game of the Month
The Senators’ most satisfying win of the month came on December 16th, a 6-4 victory over Pittsburgh in the first rematch after Sidney Crosby’s elbow to the head of Nick Foligno. (Crosby, coincidentally, missed the game and has been out of action since December 5th, after taking an elbow to the head from Boston’s David Krejci.) Jared Cowen had the first multi-point game of his career, erupting for a goal and three assists in 28 minutes of ice time. Jason Spezza also scored four points, while Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson each tallied three. Alex Auld made 32 saves for his first win since March 20th, 2011.
The Pittsburgh game, however, wasn’t Ottawa’s most comprehensive effort in a month marked by narrow wins, deflating losses and seven games that went past regulation. That would come four days later in a 4-1 defeat of the Buffalo Sabres, marked by two third-period goals from Erik Condra, including the game-winner and a late-game empty-netter. Kyle Turris assisted on Condra’s game-winner in his first game as a Senator, while Craig Anderson stopped 22 of 23 Buffalo shots.
The Senators’ postseason hopes will hinge largely on their 14 games in January, seven of which will be played against teams currently in a playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Ottawa will play a home-and-home series with the Philadelphia Flyers on January 7th and 8th, before travelling to Pittsburgh and New York to face the Penguins and Rangers later in the week. The 16th and 17th mark the two most important games of the month, with the Senators hosting the Winnipeg Jets and facing the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. Only two points separate the three teams in the Eastern Conference standings.
After their tilt with the Leafs, Ottawa will embark on a four-game Western road trip, facing off with San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Phoenix over a span of six days. Three of their Pacific Division opponents are vying for first place in the division, while Anaheim lags well behind, currently occupying the 29th overall spot in the 30-team NHL. The Senators will then return home for All-Star Weekend, to be held from January 26th to 29th at Scotiabank Place, before ending the month in Boston with their third of six games against the stingy Bruins.
All-Star Game Update
With the seventh and final week of fan balloting for the 2012 NHL All-Star Game set to conclude tomorrow, three members of the Ottawa Senators are poised to earn a starting role in the NHL’s annual mid-winter classic. The Senators should occupy two of the three starting forward spots, with Alfredsson (537,918 votes) and Spezza (486,004) sitting in second and third, respectively. Toronto’s Phil Kessel leads all forwards with 592,339 votes, while Sidney Crosby (currently out with a concussion) has slipped behind Spezza at 458,337. Milan Michalek is in fifth place, with 448,074 votes.
Erik Karlsson has broken away from all other NHL defensemen, supplementing his league-best 35 points with 585,179 All-Star votes. Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf has locked up the other starting spot on the blue line, though he remains well behind Karlsson with 510,617 votes. For the majority of the voting period, it appeared that goaltender James Reimer would join Kessel and Phaneuf as one of the six fan-elected starters, but he now sits roughly 10,000 votes behind Boston netminder and reigning Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas.
With one day left to vote, Sens fans can ensure that Spezza will join Alfredsson and Karlsson in the starting lineup by voting for the trio at vote.nhl.com. (It also wouldn’t hurt to cast a few votes for Thomas, in order to keep Reimer in his rightful place on the sidelines.) The final results will be tabulated after the voting period is over, and if the current results are any indication, Ottawa will be well represented on home ice when the game is played on January 29th.