• By: OLM Staff

Ottawa Senators Monthly Report: October

When some of us dared to suggest the Senators wouldn’t be a playoff team last season, many a set of pearls were clutched in Canada’s capital city. But when the bottom fell out and the Sens didn’t get good goaltending and Sergei Gonchar came out auditioning for The Walking Dead and their lack of depth was fully and completely exposed, even ownership admitted the franchise was closer to a full-on rebuild than a post-season berth. Without a doubt, there are pieces worth keeping – including Calder candidate blue-liners David Rundblad and Jared Cowen – but if you don’t agree this team has more holes than a (insert your most hated rival team’s name here) convention, you’re officially hole-identification challenged.

The Hockey News’ Adam Proteau was one of many accredited hockey scribes to gleefully pile on the Ottawa Senators prior to the 2011-12 NHL season, slotting the Sens dead last in his projected Eastern Conference standings. Despite bottoming out last year with a dreadful 1-13-4 midseason stretch, the Senators managed to recover well enough to finish 5th-last in the league – yet Proteau felt confident enough in the Sens’ inability to play the game of hockey that he pegged them to finish even further down in the dregs of the NHL standings.

With six months of hockey still to be played, there’s a chance that Proteau could be correct in predicting that the Sens will be picking in the draft lottery come June 2012. If the opening month of the season is any indication, however, these pesky Sens will do all they can to stay out of the NHL’s cellar – especially with a six-game win streak to protect and several players challenging for the league lead in various scoring categories. Here is a summary of the month that was in Hockey Country, featuring the ever-resilient Ottawa Senators.

Record: 7-5-0. 2nd in Northeast Division. 4th in Eastern Conference. T-6th in NHL.

Leading Scorers

Jason Spezza (12 GP: 7 G, 8 A, 15 PTS)
Milan Michalek (12 GP: 7 G, 6 A, 13 PTS)
Erik Karlsson (12 GP: 1 G, 12 A, 13 PTS)
Sergei Gonchar (11 GP: 0 G, 9 A, 9 PTS)
Colin Greening (12 GP: 4 G, 4 A, 8 PTS)

Game-by-Game Recap

Proteau and his cohorts in the media looked prescient through the first half of October, as the Sens crawled to a 1-5 record, allowing a league-worst 30 goals and falling behind by at least four goals in four different games. After conceding five straight to the Detroit Red Wings in the season opener, Milan Michalek netted two goals to cut the score to a manageable 5-3 margin. The next night, Ottawa would go down 4-0 to Toronto, before mounting a furious third-period comeback that nearly saw them come away with a point, losing 6-5. The Sens would finally notch a victory in their home opener against Minnesota, spoiling Dany Heatley’s second return to Scotiabank Place in a 4-3 shootout win.

The wheels would fall off in a 7-1 home defeat at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche, where Ottawa displayed atrocious defensive zone coverage and the inability to move the puck past their own blue-line. They’d rebound with a solid effort in a 2-1 loss to Washington, before allowing seven more goals to the Philadelphia Flyers. The tide would quickly turn, however, with the Sens registering two home victories over two of the NHL’s bottom-dwellers: a 4-1 win over Winnipeg and a 4-3 triumph over Columbus, punctuated by two goals in the final 36 seconds to crush the hopes of the then-winless Blue Jackets.

The club’s first away victory would soon follow, as the Sens topped Carolina 3-2 in a shootout. Nick Foligno would score with under four seconds left to break a 3-3 deadlock and beat Florida, before the Sens then came back from a three-goal deficit to defeat the Rangers 5-4 in a shootout. They would finish the month on a high note, eking out another one-goal victory with a 3-2 triumph over Toronto, bringing the win streak to six games and elevating the Sens into the upper tier of the National Hockey League.

There are still definite areas that need improvement, with Ottawa’s defense still sitting last in the league with 45 goals against. Craig Anderson has been steady, allowing just one shootout goal in eight attempts, though he’s yet to reach the level he operated at during the latter parts of 2010-11. Nikita Filatov and Bobby Butler have, thus far, failed to establish themselves as surefire top-six forwards, and while Mika Zibanejad showed some promise during his nine-game NHL stint, he was returned to his Swedish club, Djurgarden, with the mandate of developing his offensive game.

Player of the Month

Milan Michalek is playing the finest hockey of his short tenure in Ottawa, crashing the net without fear, controlling the boards and rapidly accumulating points. His line-mate, Colin Greening, has picked up exactly where he left off in the final quarter of last season, parlaying his speed, power, grit and a surprisingly lethal wrist shot into a permanent position on the Sens’ first line. Erik Karlsson has been simply fantastic, recording 25 minutes of ice time on a nightly basis and providing stellar defensive play against the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Erik Staal.  (Not to mention, he leads the league in assists, with 12 in 12 games.) Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Neil have provided a veteran spark, as they continue to do the jobs they’ve done for the past decade. Even Sergei Gonchar has rebounded from a dismal start to help lead an explosive Senators power play unit that currently sits atop the NHL.

And yet, all of these players merit no more than an honourable mention. The key to the Senators’ success through the month of October is none other than their first-line centre, Jason Spezza, who has matched his torrid offensive pace (tied for 2nd in the NHL in scoring) with a renewed commitment to two-way play, logging valuable minutes in all in-game situations. Spezza’s neutral-zone turnovers are still cause for aggravation, but he more than offsets his mistakes with unmatched flourishes of offensive creativity and production. With all due respect to Karlsson and Michalek, Spezza is the most important player on the Senators roster (as evidenced by the team’s catastrophic downfall following his injury in December 2010), and his emergence as a complete player and veteran leader has coincided beautifully with the Sens’ rebuilding efforts. Despite a lackluster effort through the first few games, Spezza’s overall dominance has keyed Ottawa’s current six-game win streak, which is more than enough to earn him player of the month honours for October.

Goal of the Month

Again, there are several worthy options that could make a case for this section of the awards. Stephane Da Costa and Erik Karlsson’s back-and-forth against Toronto, Peter Regin’s sharp-angle wrister against Washington and Karlsson’s snipe in the waning seconds against Philadelphia all offered up highlight-reel material in their own distinct way. For all intents and purposes, though, none can top Colin Greening’s breakaway tally in Ottawa’s 3-2 win over Toronto off of David Rundblad’s unfathomable outlet pass.

Please, watch the clip again. It’s difficult to outdo a 150-foot tape-to-tape, breakaway pass between four defenders, narrowly avoiding an offside and capped off by a smooth wrist shot off the crossbar and in – to tie the game against your team’s hated archrivals, no less. Combine that with the fact that Rundblad was appearing in only his tenth NHL game, and you’ll see why Sens fans are salivating at the prospect of the team’s future defensive corps.

Hit of the Month

No contest here – Chris Neil’s destruction of Minnesota forward Clayton Stoner stands alone atop Ottawa’s October hit parade. Neil’s bombshell changed the course of the game – Ottawa would score five minutes later to cut the Wild’s 2-0 lead in half, before eventually tying the game in the 3rd period and clinching it in a shootout. Neil would add the Sens’ second goal, cementing the performance as one of his best in an Ottawa uniform and sealing the victory in the team’s home opener.

Game of the Month

Oddly enough, the Senators’ best overall performance in October may have come in a losing effort, against Washington on October 15th. Having allowed 21 goals in the season’s first four games, the Ottawa defense rebounded well, shackling the vaunted Capitals offense to 2 goals and nearly defeating the prohibitive pre-season Eastern Conference favourites. Peter Regin scored Ottawa’s lone goal in the loss, while Erik Karlsson played over 27 minutes.

The Sens also played strong games in 3-2 victories over Carolina and Toronto, outworking the favoured opposition to secure a hard-earned two points in both cases. After nearly mounting seismic comebacks against Detroit and Toronto in the season’s first two games, Ottawa managed to complete two absurd third-period comebacks against Columbus and the New York Rangers, while also scoring with under four seconds left to top Florida.

Looking Ahead

Ottawa will play 12 games once again in the month of November, beginning with a trip to Boston to face the defending Cup champs and ending with the Sens’ return to Winnipeg on November 29th. In between, the Sens will embark on a grueling six-game road trip over the course of 15 days, including a trip to Western Canada to face the Flames, Oilers and Canucks. The Sens’ toughest test should come on November 25th, when they’ll travel to Pittsburgh to the NHL-leading Penguins. Four games will be played at Scotiabank Place – November 4th against Montreal; November 5th against Buffalo; November 9th against the Rangers; and November 27th against Carolina.