Sunday, May 20, 2007
Senators Quest for the Cup
Every eighty years or so, the Ottawa Senators get involved in serious Stanley Cup action. It was exactly eighty years ago that they won the Cup. Within a week, they will begin their quest once again, in the Final.
Local fans have been following the exploits of the Sens since their reincarnation a few years ago. They re-entered the league with the Tampa Bay Lightning, have paid their dues, and now stand on the brink of the ultimate success---winning the Stanley Cup.
Due to the proximity of both cities, loyalties extend from Quinte area fans to the Leafs and the Senators. There are Habs fans, and naturally, a few disgruntled Sabres fans as well. But the time has come for all Canadian hockey fans to support the team from the nation’s capital. (All you die-hard Blue and White fans, applaud politely.)
The Senators can attribute their success to a number of factors this year. They now have more playoff experience, they are well coached, they have speed and skill. Above all that, however, they have been denied in the playoffs several times lately. They have been bridesmaids long enough. They are hungry. And that is all the motivation they need.
They have the horses. If you happen to check the stats from the playoffs thus far, you will find three names at the top of the heap: Spezza, Heatley, and Alfredsson. They play on the top line for the Sens, and have been outstanding. There is a young netminder, named Emery, who has outplayed all opponents thus far. There are stellar defencemen: Redden, Phillips, Corvo, Schubert, Meszaros, and Preissing. And another named Volchenkov, who plays as tough as anyone in the league.
Throw in the speed of Vermette and McAmmond, and a strong supporting cast including Mike Fisher, Peter Schaefer, Eaves, and Chris Kelly. For added strength, the Sens have Chris Neil, Brian McGrattan, and a former Wellington Duke Danny Bois in the wings. Danny has paid his dues in the American League, and skated with the Sens this year---every Canadian boys’ dream.
When they knocked off the Sabres in Buffalo, the captain, Daniel Alfredsson, was presented with the President’s Trophy. He took the traditional photographs beside the trophy with Bill Daly, league Vice President. When asked why he didn’t hoist the hardware and parade it around the rink, he mumbled that it looked “too big”. In fact, it is a superstition that all players have that all that silver hardware is taboo until you win the Cup.
Alfredsson supplied the winning goal against the Sabres, and has been nothing short of spectacular in the playoffs. In previous years, his play was suspect. In fact, the Sens as a team never got untracked. Not the case this year. They are on a mission, and will be difficult to beat.
Belleville Bulls fans remember Jason Spezza well. He burned the Bulls as a Mississauga Ice Dog, and as a Spitfire. He landed in Belleville for a cup of coffee near the end of his OHL career, in a trade for Kyle Wellwood. I spoke with Spezza earlier in the season, at a time when the Senators were struggling. They had won 8 games, and lost 11. “We just need to get on a streak,” he told me. “Secondary scoring is really important. We need everyone to step it up.” Regarding the goaltending situation, he expressed confidence in Emery. (Emery had been splitting the duties with Martin Gerber.)
And now, the job is firmly in Emery’s blocker and trapper. A real bargain too---he is getting less than a million this year!
Chris Neil helps to keep things loose in the dressing room. He needled Alfredsson as they donned their street clothes after the morning practice: “Swede,” he barked. “You were really good today. I couldn’t take the puck off you.” Neil also spent some time in the practice before the game backhanding a shot high into the net from just beside the net. Sure enough, on a power play, that same situation arose. He deftly lifted the puck over Manny Fernandez’s shoulder into the top corner for his 7th goal of the year.
High in the rafters of all the arenas, John Muckler, the team’s General Manager, lives and dies with the action on the ice. He has been in the game for more than 50 years. He had coaching duties with the Oilers when they won five Stanley Cups in seven years. He played on the blue line in the minor pro ranks, mostly in the old Eastern Hockey League. I mentioned to him, when he was with the Sabres years ago, that I had seen his photo in a Belleville hockey program from the early 1950’s. His response? “That was good hockey, in those days.” He spent a year in Belleville.
As is the case with all high level sports today, strategies, methods, approaches are complex. Coach Murray tries to simplify the process. In one of his post game interviews, he expressed some of his opinions: “For us to be successful, our good players have to play well. With Redden playing well, it relieves the pressure off the other guy. (his defensive partner). It helps solve the problems in our own end. For any team, even when they are playing their very best, they will give up 7 or 8 good scoring chances a game.”
The television hockey talkers debated where the Senators would hold their Stanley Cup parade, or float, if they used the Rideau. That is not something for anyone to consider at this time. It is one of those jinx things. Forget it.
Start the Zamboni. Put the nets on their pins. Drop the puck. There will be twenty thousand fans on the edge of their seats for the next two weeks in ScotiaBank Place. The wait is over. The Sens are in the finals.
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