Sunday, September 14, 2008

Kitchener Rookie Tournament - Game 1 vs Florida Panthers

What better way for the Ottawa Senators rookies to start their first game of the rookie tournament than to let the Florida Panthers squad open up the scoring less than two minutes in? It must be a pattern, since I started my first attempt at covering a live game by showing up just in time to see the Florida rookies gather in celebration of that goal in front of Elliot. It was a rainy day, the bus was half an hour late, so full that I had to ride on top of one of the wheels in a tiny space, and the ticket line was still long when the puck dropped. I’m sure if I keep mentioning excuses like that, I’ll have no trouble securing a one-way ticket to Russia. Needless to say, postgame I made sure to pick up my tickets to the next two games, along with a nice start times schedule, so there’s no need to let me go.

Quickly enough, the game was tied up on a goal by Weller, from Regin and Lawrence, and the game was afoot. Weller certainly earned his goal, working hard and skating fast whenever he hit the ice. Highly-touted Winchester looked very calm on the ice, never putting forth futile efforts, but when by position or by pass he was brought into a play, he quickly made his efforts clear. At first I enjoyed seeing the work of Zack Smith, who would join the rush without question and could take and dish out more than his fair share of brutal hits, but I did not see any need for him to get into a fight with Florida’s David Jarram with four minutes left in the period, a short bout with no clear winner before both fell to the ice. But let‘s get back to the game.

The Sens’ first powerplay did nothing to impress, with the team only mustering up a few shots without much zip, and nobody working too hard to get into a good, open position from which to score. However, when Zack Smith took his first penalty, the team looked startlingly good on the penalty kill, with Elliot staying sharp and guys like Regin and Weller working hard to keep up the pressure on Florida’s guns. When the Sens got their next chance after a kneeing penalty to Florida’s Jarram - about the only reason I could see for the aforementioned fight, and perhaps the reason I read earlier that Tampa avoided Ottawa rookie tournaments - the team worked hard to keep the puck moving around in the zone, and eventually Zubov, who looked quite comfortable moving the puck around from his spot down low, scored the team’s second goal, with assists going to Kudelka and Winchester.

At the start of the game, they had looked more like a bunch of individuals looking to impress Murray and Hartsburg up in the stands, holding their sticks too tightly, but it didn’t take too long for them to start working well together. Nikulin, who I’m sure management had their eye on, looked hardworking on the ice, but would appear to be a little jittered, finding his spot by the net in just a little too deep and out of reach for a clear pass, and would have more than one puck heading towards him go whizzing right by, though to his credit he would find better consistency as the game wore on. In net, once he got settled, Elliot looked quite smooth, with good lateral movement and telescoping, and good positioning in full or half butterfly, although he still had some jitters, fumbling a save or two.

For me, the one pleasant surprise was Mattias Karlsson. The Swedish defenceman looked very smooth on the ice, calmly skating the puck out of his zone to make a series of good passes. Not only was he not afraid to take many a hit, but he looked particularly comfortable on the powerplay. In addition to his good passing skills there, he also had a distinct talent for keeping the puck in the zone. I’m not just talking about catching the pucks sliding around the boards with his stick or skates; Karlsson was able to keep many a madly bouncing or soaring overhead puck in play, always being in a position good for both passing and for lunging towards wayward pucks. Not that the rest of the team looked shabby, but for the first period and indeed the whole game, Karlsson was the biggest and most pleasant surprise for me.

In the second period, the team really started to look like one, which allowed for some good standout efforts by individuals. It was often the little things that caught my eye. At one point, Kudelka found himself behind his net, having fallen to all fours on top of the puck with a Panther trying to fish it out. Rather than attempt to cover it up until help could arrive, he deftly swatted it out between his legs to a team mate swooping in off the boards to clear the puck.

This time around, it was the Sens who opened the scoring, about five minutes in, on an absolutely beautiful rush. Getting the puck from Weller, Peter Regin drove hard for the net with a lone defenceman covering him closely. Despite this, he was able to keep the puck under control the whole way in, and right at the last moment he got off a nice pass over the lip of the crease to Lawrence, who completed the play with a very rewarding goal.

Yet again, I found myself proudly watching Karlsson’s play. Like Corvo, he wasn’t afraid to jump up and join the rush when warranted, and he seemed cool as a cucumber in any situation, like one where he lost his stick near the puck in his own end, but was able to casually pick it up so he could clear the puck. Later on he’d fall to one knee, I can’t recall whether on a trip or not, but still managed not to lose the puck, and instead was able to make a clean pass. That clean pass would help their powerplay when it hit the ice again after a Collins slash, and Zubov would once more keep a watchful eye from down low, waiting to take a good shot or else to get off a clean pass, indeed showing his development after a slow period in Binghamton’s second half of last season.

When the roles were reversed after a Kudelka interference penalty, the penalty killers showed real moxy. Thanks to some hard work, Derek Smith and Alexander Nikulin managed a good breakout and were almost rewarded with a shorthanded goal. A couple more offsetting penalties, and the open ice likely made Zubov feel more at home with more ability for skilled play, and he made some good pushes at the period’s end.

The third period didn‘t get off to a smooth start for the Sens. After a Panthers penalty, the Sens went took two more. On the penalty kill with only three in front, they managed a good triangle at first, but ended up spread out. At that point, conveniently, the puck ended up in front of Elliot’s left pad on the end of a Panther’s stick, and with a little bit of stickwork it was soon in the net. Not too long after that, a rush on Elliot had a whistle blown before he had full control of the puck, and he proceeded to drop it for a futile shot by Florida into the net, but after that Elliot started to get back into his groove, and the team started to give him a little more help.

The next penalty went to the Panthers for a hook, and the Ottawa powerplay took full advantage of the opportunity. Once again, we had Karlsson pulling every trick out of the bag to keep the puck in along the right side, and after some good work down low, Zubov and Winchester got the assists on a nice chip in goal by Lawrence seven minutes in.

While killing another Ottawa penalty, the guys really were killers, as O’Brien got the puck out to Zack Smith for another good shorthanded chance that ended with the puck in Plante’s chest. Keeping the puck out looked easy for Elliot at this stage in the game, who seemed to have no trouble seeing the puck through cover, and always a pleasure for me, he knew all too well that butterfly is a style, not a move, and knew when not to fall, making for some easy but effective off-the-chest deflections. Before it was all over, the Smiths and O’Brien would get another good shorthanded rush going, for a good tic-tac-toe shot.

Back in the box again for a cross check, the Sens still managed to hold up the Florida powerplay, clearing the puck time and time again, although their four man box seemed a little short, making for relatively easy passes near the blueline. Not wanting to waste time, O’Brien jumped right into the play when he left the penalty box, and was rewarded with a solid shot on goal.

Down to the last minute now, and Ottawa kept holding the puck in the Panthers end. After a Florida timeout, a little Panthers confusion kept the puck too close to their own net for comfort, and even with their goalie pulled, the Sens held on for a convincing 4-2 win.

While some of the guys didn’t seem to stand out against the rest, you certainly got the feeling that the ones we had our eyes on - Elliot, Nikulin, Zubov, and Winchester - were all getting into their groove, and give us plenty of reason to come back for the games against the rookies from Toronto and Pittsburgh. Once again, I have to give a hearty congratulations to Karlsson, who stood out amongst all Senators blueliners, and should surely see a good deal of quality minutes in Binghamton this season. Should there be an unfortunate injury or two on the Senators back end, I hope that Murray will give him serious consideration as a call-up, and I hope that in the next two games he will continue to show us great strides.

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