In several previous monthly reports, I’ve used this space to skewer Adam Proteau and The Hockey News for predicting the Ottawa Senators would finish dead last in the Eastern Conference in their September season preview. While the forecast certainly wasn’t uncommon (nearly every major hockey publication, website and Toronto media outlet had the Sens stuck in 15th place), the callous, boastful manner in which Proteau sentenced Ottawa (and their presumably “hole-identification challenged” fans) to last place leaves his argument open to gleeful revision seven months later.
In the interest of equality, here is my season preview, in which I pegged 12th place in the Eastern Conference as the likely finishing spot for the rebuilding Senators. 82 enthralling games later, I am overjoyed to admit that I was wrong, nearly as wrong as the hole-identification challenged Mr. Proteau, as the Sens will finish the regular season in 8th place and face the New York Rangers in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
So much had to go right this season for Ottawa to stave off the doubters and clinch a playoff berth. Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek had to rebound from injury-riddled seasons in 2010-11. (Each did, producing near their maximum output offensively.) Erik Karlsson had to break out in his third season in North America. (78 points, 25 up on the next defenseman? I’d say he exceeded even the loftiest expectations.) Craig Anderson had to duplicate his late-season form from last year, while veteran defenders Sergei Gonchar, Filip Kuba and Chris Phillips had to prove they weren’t finished after dismal campaigns. (After some early struggles, Anderson was terrific, while the veterans were integral in stabilizing the Ottawa defensive corps.)
For many reasons, this is the Senators team I’ve enjoyed following most during my time as a fan, even more so than the pre-lockout powerhouses or the Pizza Line-era clubs that challenged for the Cup. The Sens endeared themselves to fans by staying competitive throughout the season, never quitting on games and embracing their role as underappreciated underdogs. In terms of expectations, it was a freebie season: as long as the young players played hard and showed marked improvement, any outcome would have been acceptable. In a year where nothing could go wrong, nothing did.
Record: 7-8-2. (Finished 41-31-10. 2nd in Northeast Division. 8th in Eastern Conference. 16th in NHL.)
Leading Scorers: (March & April) – (Total)
Milan Michalek (17 GP: 7 G, 8 A, 15 PTS) – (77: 35-25-60)
Jason Spezza (15 GP: 6 G, 7 A, 13 PTS) – (80: 34-50-84)
Erik Karlsson (17 GP: 4 G, 8 A, 12 PTS) – (81: 19-59-78)
Daniel Alfredsson (17 GP: 5 G, 7 A, 12 PTS) – (75: 27-32-59)
Kyle Turris (17 GP: 6 G, 6 A, 12 PTS) – (49: 12-17-29)
Following a 1-0 shutout of the Boston Bruins to close the month of February, the slim possibility that the Senators could pass Boston for the Northeast Division lead remained alive. Those hopes were dashed after an inconsistent March, during which Ottawa nearly played itself out of the playoffs entirely. The Sens managed just three goals in consecutive losses to Chicago and Florida, before tallying 11 in two straight victories (7-3 over Tampa Bay and 4-1 over the New York Rangers). Shootout losses to division rivals Buffalo and Montreal would follow, before Ottawa avoided a shootout by topping the Canadiens 2-1 in overtime.
With Washington, Buffalo and Winnipeg all challenging for the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, Ottawa embarked on a patently unwelcome three-game losing streak, scoring just two goals in defeats to Toronto (3-1), New Jersey (1-0) and Montreal (5-1). Just as the offense looked to have dried up entirely, the Senators rebounded with a vengeance, potting 23 goals in their next four games, wins over Pittsburgh (8-4), Winnipeg (6-4), Philadelphia (4-3 in a shootout) and the New York Islanders (5-1), officially clinching a playoff spot with the victory in Long Island.
With their postseason hopes secure, Ottawa fell in their final two home games, 2-1 to Carolina and 3-1 to Boston. The Senators wrapped up the regular season in New Jersey, falling 4-2 to the sixth-place Devils.
Players of the Month
With the season coming to a close, it makes sense to honour the veteran players that spurred the Senators’ prodigious offensive charge. A year after netting 192 goals, good for 29th in the 30-team NHL, the 2011-12 Senators finished with 249 goals, proving that preseason concerns about their offensive ability to be wildly off base. Alongside young Erik Karlsson, the offense was powered by healthy seasons from Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek, each of whom thrived in Paul MacLean’s freewheeling attack.
Michalek led the club with 15 points in March and April and topped the Sens in goals with 35, nine more than his previous career high. Alfredsson could challenge for both the Masterton Trophy and the Lady Byng, scoring 59 points at the age of 39. Spezza finished 4th in league scoring with 84 points, ending the year as the Senators’ (partially disputed) MVP, with apologies to Ottawa’s heralded Swedish blueliner.
Goal of the Month
No contest here, although the winning entry will be forever commemorated on highlight reels and YouTube compilations for the primary assist rather than the goal itself. Having taken two straight tripping penalties against the Winnipeg Jets on March 26th, Jason Spezza began to hear the jeers from the partisan crowd at the MTS Centre. Locked in a 2-2 game in the second period, Spezza took a pass from Erik Karlsson, burst into the Winnipeg zone and tucked the puck behind his back along the half-wall. Curling back towards the blue-line, Spezza found open ice and headed straight for the Jets goal, unfurling an absolutely disgusting dangle around centre Bryan Little. Corralling the puck on his backhand to elude defenseman Ron Hainsey, Spezza lofted a pass by outstretched goaltender Ondrej Pavelec and right onto the stick of Kyle Turris, who tapped in for the easiest goal of his professional career.
In a year that will be remembered for great Senators assists (including passes from Karlsson, the erstwhile David Rundblad and Clarke MacArthur), no play stands out more than Spezza’s terrific individual effort, a play reminiscent of some of the prettiest moves in the talented centre’s career. A cursory reminder to Jets fans: don’t get Jason Spezza angry.
Game of the Month
Coming off of a potentially devastating three-game losing streak, Ottawa needed to rebound at home against the surging Pittsburgh Penguins. 60 minutes and eight goals later, the Sens accomplished just that, seeing 11 players register at least a point in a commanding 8-4 victory. Daniel Alfredsson led the way with two goals and two assists, while Nick Foligno added three helpers of his own. Craig Anderson and Ben Bishop combined for 36 saves, while the Sens victimized Brad Thiessen, who surrendered all eight goals behind an embarrassing effort from the Penguins’ defense.
Erik Karlsson Norris Watch
A relatively weak March and April may doom Karlsson when it comes time for Norris Trophy voting. (Of course, he still tallied 12 points in 17 games.) There have been suggestions that Karlsson is nursing a minor injury of some sort, though he has continued to play down the stretch even after Ottawa secured a playoff berth last Sunday. Teams have begun to gear their entire defensive game plans around Karlsson’s ability to lead the breakout, trying to shackle the young blueliner as a means of stopping Ottawa’s offense. While his production has slipped a tad, Karlsson finishes 2011-12 with 78 points, just below a point-per-game in a season where no other blueliner topped 53. Forget comparisons to Mike Green and Lubomir Visnovsky – Karlsson’s season is reminiscent of the offensive dominance of Paul Coffey and Brian Leetch in the 1980s and early 1990s (when adjusted for differences in goal-scoring rates league-wide).
Karlsson doesn’t do things that a conventional All-Around Defenseman does: throw hits, block shots and kill penalties, to name three. Instead, Karlsson has improved his positional defending by leaps and bounds, leading the league in takeaways, often by letting opponents beat him to loose pucks in the corner before stripping the puck away and leading the breakout. By playing 25 stellar minutes at even-strength and on the power play, it would be foolish for Paul MacLean to increase Karlsson’s ice-time even further or waste his offensive talents by sticking him on the penalty kill, where players like Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips and Jared Cowen can play to their strengths by blocking shots and harnessing their size.
Karlsson has been the league’s best all-around defenseman by playing a distinctly non-traditional brand of defense, one that may never be recognized by the mainstream sportswriters who wield Norris votes. (Case in point: this ignorant tweet from Toronto scribe Damien Cox touting the Rangers’ Dan Girardi over Karlsson for the Norris. Girardi has all of 29 points on the year and isn’t even the best defenseman on his team.) Every error Karlsson makes is overblown as evidence of his general disregard for defense, while a similar mistake from, say, Shea Weber, is considered an anomaly based on his accumulated reputation. (Case in point: this snide tweet from St. Louis broadcaster Darren Pang blasting Karlsson’s defensive play during the March 26th game against Winnipeg. Karlsson would respond by finishing the night with three assists and a +5 rating, effectively silencing Pang.)
Who do I think will win the Norris? Based on the men voting for the award, it will likely be Nashville’s Shea Weber, with St. Louis’ Alex Pietrangelo (a Pang favourite) also garnering support. Personally, I feel that it would be unfortunate if the writers choose to overlook a 25-point scoring gap and don’t award the Norris to the best all-around defenseman in 2011-12, the blazing Swede from Ottawa.
The New York Rangers. Round 1. Two years removed from their last postseason tilt, Ottawa will travel to Madison Square Garden to face off with the Eastern Conference champions. Let the hate flow, and the playoffs begin.