Sunday, September 14, 2008

Kitchener Rookie Tournament - Game 2 vs Toronto Maple Leafs

Strangely enough, once more as I hopped off the bus, the rain started to beat down. Coincidence perhaps? Or a foreshadowing of events to come, as the Ottawa Senators' rookies prepared to take on the host Toronto Maple Leafs' squad? My guess is that mother nature just wants for all my coats to be soaking wet. This time around, I was indeed fortunate enough to be on time, so I could stand for the anthems (with the American one starting partway through), and hear the starting lineups get called out (with one wrong Senator being named). Yes, this is a very long game review, but since it wasn't televised or broadcast in any way to my knowledge, I thought I'd take a little deeper look at the game than I expect to see elsewhere in the media.

To start things off, we find ourselves with Mitch O'Keefe minding the net, having Derek Smith and Geoff Waugh to help make his life a little easier, and what I will refer to as 'the Big Line' of Alexander Nikulin, Ilya Zubov, and Jesse Winchester up front to carry the attack. But, instead of seeing them start the game with all cylinders firing, we begin instead with Waugh and the Leafs' Phil Oreskovic immediately dropping the gloves after the whistle. Like an embarassing first date, this fight is over nearly before it begins, with Oreskovic getting Waugh's jersey over his head, and Waugh tackling Oreskovic to the ice.

I can't and won't deny that I was one of the fans who wanted to see a very smashed in Leafs' face at the end of last season, but there is absolutely no reason to start off a game like this. Trying to prove yourself a good enforcer? Good enforcers stand up when things get hairy, they don't go crawling around looking for a fight. To reward behaviour like that just suggests that secretly, despite the instigator rule and the massive suspensions we've seen lately, the League wants fighting to be a key part of the game. For shame.

Enough preaching though, and on with the game. Despite what you'd think a fight would do, the action starts off with a rather tepid back and forth, nothing too special or exciting at all. But, just like yesterday, the game gets started quickly, and in the same way. On a Toronto rush, Derek Smith managed to deflect an initial shot, but the Leafs' Dale Mitchell takes full advantage of a screen and opens the scoring just 21 seconds in. I hate to say it, but is this going to be a pattern for the Sens' games?

In what will turn out to be one of the Senators' better lines, Jim O'Brien, Peter Regin, and Kaspars Daugavins started getting some good work down low on the boards around the Toronto net, and while the initial save was made, just as with Elliot at times yesterday, the puck was fumbled. I can't be sure that the excitement of playing in a Sens' uniform for the first time wasn't affecting O'Keefe though, as he looked a bit shaky early on, even committing a cardinal sin when he decided to track a slow moving puck going behind the net by turning his back to center ice for a good couple seconds.

Two minutes in and we get our first penalty of the game, a holding call on Ottawa's Brandon Roach. After a few shots though, Ottawa's penalty killers clear the puck, and a too eager Toronto powerplay comes in offside. The penalty killing unit of Ben Wright, Mattias Karlsson, Pierre-Luc Faubert, and Winchester looked very good on the ice, showing a good box with pressure, and good adaptive positioning, no doubt helping Ottawa to kill off the first penalty.

Perhaps frustrated, the Leafs started to play a very hard checking, aggressive paced game, and the Sens were not matching that intensity. I watched as O'Brien was just about to receive a pass, but wasn't mindful enough to avoid being completely crushed into the boards in his own end. The question I wondered was whether or not the Leafs could keep up this intensity, but that question seemed moot as Toronto's Chris DiDomenico's shot mimicked Corvo's from two seasons ago, and over O'Keefe's pad it bounced, and into the net it went to give the Leafs a two nothing lead.

Still struggling, it took O'Brien and Regin skating close and protecting the puck to get their next real rush in on Toronto, almost seven minutes in. Their reward at this point for their offensive efforts? Dauvganis takes a hooking penalty, and once again the penalty killers take the ice. Despite the box getting very tangled, they still manage to clear the puck. At this point you start to notice that it is bouncing like mad in the Ottawa end, whether due to ice conditions or players' actions I am not entirely sure. As reliable as the Winchester unit is, it is often more exciting to see Regin and O'Brien kill the penalties, as they seem to put a lot more pressure on the Leafs.

The pressure pays off as the Leafs take a holding penalty nine minutes in, and a mere 16 seconds later, the Big Line keeps the puck moving around and Zubov and Nikulin assist on Winchester's goal to get back in the game. After the goal, the team looked much calmer to me, as I saw Waugh pointing and giving his troops orders from in front of the crease. Perhaps I spoke too soon, as a minute later Waugh took a roughing penalty, and the Leafs started to put on some good pressure during their powerplay, which saw O'Keefe perhaps a little nervous as he was caught at one point with the post behind him looking at the puck in the corner, and nervous it was seeing the puck cross through the crease a couple times. Nonetheless, once again the Sens managed to kill it off.

It is said that killing penalties can help build a team's confidence, and not long after this one Zubov deftly steals the puck just outside Toronto's blueline, and a nice shot goes over the shoulder and ties the game at two. It would seem like a two-faced monster at times, as the Sens wound up looking shaky again, getting a bit too bunched up by some good Toronto puck cycling. Just as quickly though, we wing up seeing a great defensive demonstration by Roach, who followed the puck as it was passed between three Leafs rushing in, helping to keep them from any good scoring chance, and later Karlsson would do the same, swatting the puck under a sprawled O'Keefe with Toronto on the doorstep. It took a helmet-removing open ice hit by Zack Smith, at least I'd like to think it did, to finally get the Sens back on the attack, and sure enough it sparked a few more big hits, but no fighting.

My favourite penalty of the game happened in the closing minutes of the first period, when my perspective showed me what I can only describe as a Leaf choosing to grab a hold of Waugh's stick by the boards, and then choosing to finish it off with a nice fall onto his bottom. I can't say that the referees' angles gave them any other choice but to call a hooking penalty, but perhaps the team sensed Waugh's frustration, as they brought the puck to Toronto for most of the powerplay, and clearing it out of the zone the rest of the time. As the period ended, as shaky as O'Keefe had appeared, I had to chuckle at the score, tied at two, as the announcer mentioned that Toronto had eight shots, and Ottawa only had 3.

The second period would open very quietly, not even a hit to be heard. Not wanting to be left out of the early scoring I suppose, a good rush into the zone had O'Brien scoring just 58 seconds in, assisted by Regin and Wright. Half a minute later, Toronto would wind up with an interference penalty. A beautiful play on the powerplay ensued, as Nikulin took the puck from down low, circling behind Zubov, and eyed a clear pass to Karlsson coming in from the blueline, who takes it in and backhands it to Winchester for a quick shot from the side to give Ottawa its first lead two and a half minutes in. Jesse seems as though he might fit well with Spezza and Heatley, being very good at finding himself open in the right spot, just as Heatley is so good at doing.

A surprising penalty a minute later, as Benoit Doucet serves time for a too many men on the ice call. Good penalty killing kept Toronto from getting into the zone for a full minute, but once in they got the puck to the net quick, Ottawa having to get the puck out of the crease more than once, and a visibly jarred O'Keefe wound up knocking the net off its moorings by accident. Still they managed to get it out so that O'Brien could get a good shorthanded rush.

Suddenly it seems that it's Toronto finding themselves visibly shaken, as line after line of Ottawa players keeps the puck in deep, getting off good shots and hard shots, nearly winding up with Toronto causing an own goal. The line of O'Brien, Regin, and Dauvganis looks good down low, working the puck around the boards but being very good at keeping control and having a defensive mindset. The Big Line looks great too, threading passes through Toronto players and making it look easy. Yet eleven minutes in, it's Karlsson scoring with a clear quick shot from above the circle, with Roach and Mick Lawrence drawing the assists.

Finally able to shake themselves into action, Toronto starts pressuring again, but just in time O'Keefe is looking good, making solid chest saves. The only time the Toronto fans in the stands could cheer was after Brett Morrison lost the puck to a Leaf, but they could still only manage a rather slow and ineffective rush in off of it. Later they would get the result they wanted, as a pass to a Leaf rushing in brought the game to within one with two and a half minutes left in the second, but O'Keefe would try to prove himself fit by making a nice glove save on the next shot.

With a minute left, Toronto takes a boarding penalty, but nothing comes from the ensuing powerplay. As the period ended, the Sens appeared ready to do anything to win. They would control the puck, they would stick to their men, they would even make a crazy type of near blind pass where you have your body facing between where you're looking and where you're passing, rather than shoving the puck behind your back. Best of all, they never seemed to let up.

The third period winds up with a change in goal, as O'Keefe is replaced by Kevin Desfosses. I can't be sure whether it was a really short leash that brought this change in, or just a desire to see Desfosses get some playing time. At first the game returns to the dull back and forth, but just over three minutes in, Ottawa gets a rush in, and a slick side to side pass nets Doucet a goal, assisted by Regin and Faubert.

Not to back down after opening up another two goal lead, the Big Line takes the ice to keep up the pressure. Six minutes in, Toronto's captain Darryl Boyce takes a roughing penalty. To keep it interesting, half a minute later Mick Lawrence winds up in the box for hooking. I was happy to see Zubov and another Senator both dropping to block a shot during the four on four, not having seen many this far in the tournament. Not long after Boyce's penalty was up, Luke Schenn winds up on the wrong side of a holding call, and the powerplay does manage some good pressure and Zack Smith and Karlsson some good shots.

In what I would call a very foolish move, eleven minutes in Waugh takes an interference penalty in Toronto's zone. Half a minute later Boyce takes a cross checking penalty, and another thirty seconds and Kudelka gets caught doing the same. Despite being down to three men in front of Desfosses, Ottawa manages to keep Toronto from getting good chances, clearing pucks and mucking up powerplay plans at every turn, before Shawn Weller winds up with a slashing call fourteen minutes in. The sad part of the Toronto powerplay is that they looked rather unimaginative at this point. No fast cycling, no moving into good positions for quick one timers. Instead, you watch as the puck waits at the blueline for the forwards to create as big a screen as they can before a shot goes off.

With only three minutes left, Waugh takes a double minor for high sticking, and a minute later Derek Smith takes a roughing call. Just a few moments before the two man advantage would end, a snap shot from between the circles would go over Desfosses shoulder, giving Toronto their fourth goal. Feeling confident that they can tie it up in the remaining minute and change, they pull their goalie, only that leads to Zack Smith scoring an empty netter with 45 seconds left. As the fans poured out to get a head start on leaving the parking lot, not that half of the Aud has any traffic compared to a full Scotiabank place, Toronto finally got their thick screen to yield results, bringing it back to within two with 14 seconds left.

The game would end with the Ottawa Senators beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-5, and if I heard correct despite my disbelief, the final shot total was 28 for Ottawa, and a whopping 42 for Toronto. The game left me feeling a little sad that some bad bounces and frustrating screens kept it from being a blowout, but you could certainly see a team taking shape amongst the players, with lines and pairings working well, and certainly Murray's decision-making process will be just a little more complex because of it.


GuyIncognito said...

Thanks for covering these games!
I wish I could be down there right now... sounds like our kids are coming along nicely, though... i've been very pleased about what i've heard about the play of both zubov and winchester so far

do you or anyone else know what the plan is for O'brien this year? Is he destined to use his last year of junior, or will he get consideration for Bingo?

Anonymous said...

Yes, thanks for the info, great detail. From what you've seen so far could you rank the following Sens forward prospects in terms of their "NHL readiness": Regin, Nikulin, Zubov, Winchester, O'Brien? And where is Hennessy, do you have any news on him? Thanks.

senshobo said...

O'Brien will be in the WHL this year, and I only expect that it will further help solidify him as a solid, energetic, two-way player that will have success in Binghamton and eventually Ottawa.

I am not certain of Hennessy's status, but I believe he did not attend the camp since he would not tend to be considered a rookie anymore (neither would Jeff Glass).

NHL readiness is hard to define, since it's not just skill, but perserverance, conditioning, and ability to adjust that come into play. I think that O'Brien and Regin both offer sound two-way play, with the potential to have an impact in the AHL and hopefully the NHL within a few years. Winchester showed solid play, and along with Zubov probably has the best chance to spend some time in Ottawa this season. Nikulin showed promise too, but had more bad bounces and occurrences to his name, but that could just be the difference between practicing all summer in Russia before just returning to North America, and staying to work out here, as Zubov did.