Monday, September 15, 2008

Kitchener Rookie Tournament - Game 3 vs Pittsburgh Penguins

Something felt different as I walked over to the Aud for today's game. Maybe it was because I forgot to wear my Sens watch, or that I had put on my Sens socks; I still had my favourite Sens shirt tucked over me though. Must have been the fact that it wasn't raining on me.

The puck dropped with the big line of Alexander Nikulin centering Jesse Winchester and Ilya Zubov, with Brian Elliot in goal and Derek Smith and Geoff Waugh on defense, with Kevin Desfosses and Brett Morrison being the two healthy scratches to the lineup. The big line looked good to start, getting some nice hard passes off, but the play was mostly in the Ottawa zone.

A minute and a half in and Jim O'Brien (whose name I just noticed was misspelt in my roster sheet as O'Brian, an honest mistake I suppose) takes a hooking penalty. Mattias Karlsson, Tomas Kudelka (not Thomas, Mr. roster sheet), Geoff Waugh, and Zack Smith would start off the penalty killing, successfully clearing the puck again and again. When Pittsburgh did start getting chances, Elliot was looking good in net, staying ready and showing good lateral movement and anticipation, and in the end nothing would come of the Pens' powerplay.

Next we would see Mick Lawrence, Nikulin, Shawn Weller, Kudelka, and Karlsson displaying good puck control, eventually leading to Weller fighting hard against a lone defenseman on a rush and getting a good shot from it. At this point though, you begin to notice that there is not much hitting going on. It is not persistent, bone crushing, or board bashingly loud, giving a hint that this game might be different from the last very physical two that the Sens faced.

Once again as the big line took the ice, their skill showed with good puck control. Nikulin looked a little jittery at times though, not quite able to collect some passes that came his way. One thing that you do start to notice that the team does well, similar to the not-so-blind passes I mentioned yesterday, is that they will rush hard for the net, but when they get close to the crease, they have been pretty good at deciding whether a shot, or a pass across to the other side of the net and a rushing teammate is more likely to yield the better scoring chance, shown this point as Adam Miller rushed in and made the right choice in passing the puck on as he would not have had a good opportunity himself.

By this stage in the tournament, lines had started to take shape, and after the big line and their smooth skating and passing, one of the next best lines would be nearly opposite in style. Peter Regin, O'Brien, and Kaspars Daugavins tend to be the kind of line you will find rushing the net again and again, and working the puck along the boards and amongst bodies and crowds very well, not to mention that they are pretty sound positionally.

Despite their talent, the team did not seem to be adjusting well to the Pens' gameplan that abandoned pure physical play or superbly executed skill in favour of a high-tempo, team-based game that seemed to take advantage of every opportunity presented to them. Their frantic pace would lead to some Ottawa mistakes, such as a tumbling Derek Smith trying to pass the puck behind the net, and instead forcing Elliot to be mindful against a potential own goal.

To get back to the point of what a light hitting game this was, when the big line got back on, it was a hit by Zubov that I really noticed, and with all the solid players on the team that surprised me more than just a little. The big line would stay on for a powerplay from a kneeing incident nine minutes in with Kudelka and Karlsson on point, getting some good blasts from Kudelka. I did find myself surprised that Nikulin, a center, would almost always be found waiting just to the side of the net, contributing little to any puck movement.

More good chances would come from the Regin line, getting some mucky chances whacking at the puck in the crease, but also working the puck well along the boards, before springing it out for a quick shot and a good scoring chance. A Ganzak giveaway near the end of the penalty could have lead to a very unfortunate goal, but Regin was there to keep things under control. Despite this, Ganzak ended up with a hooking call right as the powerplay finished. Elliot would continue to look good, poised and aware of the play and mindful of his options, but the penalty killers appeared to be slightly off their game, a little too eager to shrink their box, which would play well into some Pittsburgh efforts to screen Elliot. Regin and O'Brien would help end the penalty kill successfully, both showing a good mix of aggressiveness and of good positional coverage.

Elliot would have to continue being mindful, dropping the length of his stick to the ice to make a save on a Pittsburgh shot that came from bad miscues on the big line. A little bit of physical play would ensue with some good hits from Lawrence, Zack Smith, and Waugh. Still, the guns can't get anything to work despite their hard efforts. Pierre-Luc Faubert would get a good rush in the last minute, working his way around the defenseman, and a little later the Regin line would come with some good energy and O'Brien would get off another good shot. The period would end scoreless however, with Pittsburgh outshooting Ottawa 10 to 6.

The big line would again take the ice to start the second period, but all three would look a little slow, lacking any real jump. A minute in, Winchester would take a hooking penalty, and the penalty killers would keep the Pens from making all but a lone shot off a rush. O'Brien continued to look great out there, never backing or slowing down. His face looks similar to Peter Schaefer's, which could explain his skill on the boards, but his eyes have a hint of Fisher to them, maybe alluding to his solid two-way skills. He also has an Alex Steen nose, but I'm not sure if that's significant.

Right after the penalty ended, Corey Cowick and Kudelka would get in a fight, whether by coincidence or because of a rough two man open ice hit on Miller, I can't be sure. Two men off for fighting won't give you any advantage, but the hooking penalty Pittsburgh took mere seconds later would. I find myself enjoying this rule that starts the powerplay in the offensive zone, ensuring a quick and at times nervous start. No successes would come on the powerplay though, despite Karlsson's continued efforts to keep the puck in and the energy of the Regin line. As things got a bit out of hand, Roach was also dependable, keeping the Pens from getting a shorthanded chance.

Weller took a tripping penalty next, which belied the rather back and forth nature of the game so far. Elliot would show a good glove hand at first, and Lawrence would cover the point well while going to one knee again and again to block any shot or pass. Finally the pressure would be too much. First a shot would go over Elliot's shoulder and ring off the crossbar. The next one would hit home, as a shot from the circle zipped under Elliot's blocker arm (as far as my eyesight could tell), opening the scoring 9:23 into the second period.

Being stymied so much and now down a goal, Ottawa would skate with more quickness, but they still looked too shaky to make much happen. Eleven minutes in and we would see a new powerplay unit as the Pens were called for hooking: Zubov, Winchester, and Regin. Unlike Nikulin's patience down low on the powerplay, Regin moved around the lower half of the zone, fishing for pucks and for position, and Winchester would wind up with a good shot from the side of the net, and Kudelka one from the slot. The second unit would feature Nikulin with Daugavins and Lawrence, but they did not have much success.

For the next few minutes it would seem as though the Pens were running circles around the Sens, and I'm sure the players were thankful when at 14:24 Pittsburgh was called for slashing. The new first unit would hit the ice again, but have trouble getting it in. Karlsson continued to work like mad to keep the puck in so they could get set up, but to no avail. When the Nikulin unit got on, instead of seeing Nikulin in a skillful sense, he wound up in a fight with Ben Lovejoy, who took him down quick, and both went off for roughing, with the Sens still being locked out of the zone for the rest of their powerplay.

Frustration would seem to set in as the Sens would return to their lone wolf ways for a time. With a couple minutes left, a great repeated individual effort by Faubert would lead to several chips along the board, winding up with a good rush. No surprise though when the Sens failed to keep bringing the attack to Pittsburgh, and the period would wind down with some more of the familiar back and forth.

Before the period would end though, a narrow offside call saved Elliot from having to deal with a shot from a nasty intercepted pass. Just as the crossbar earlier in the period had motivated the Pens to a goal, they would find themselves crashing the net, and wound up crashing the puck in behind Elliot for their second goal with 26 seconds left in the period, which would end with Pittsburgh once again outshooting Ottawa, this time by 10 to 4.

Getting desperate as the third period opened, coach Cory Clouston would again shuffle the top line, this time moving Regin out to make way for the crash and bang of Zack Smith, though it would not immediately generate much pressure at first. Rather, just shy of two minutes in, O'Brien would take a pass from Nikulin, perform the old pass the puck through the defenseman's legs while lifting your stick over him, and then proceed to shoot the puck over the goalie's shoulder to end Pittsburgh's bid for a shutout, and indeed to reward O'Brien for his great hard work this game and this tournament.

All good things must come to an end though, and a dozen seconds later Kudelka would be called for interference. Pittsburgh would only need eight seconds to score, shooting the puck over a shotblocking Senator to restore their two goal lead. Hardly unexpected was Pittsburgh's dominance, as they seemed far more aware of the puck and the bodies on the ice.

More frantic chances for Ottawa, as Zubov would rush in and get a pass off to Karlsson, but the pass wouldn't connect. The defensemen were not standing out too much this game. Usually, you'd say it's a good thing to not notice a defenseman, but considering it's Phillips, Volchenkov, and Smith up in Ottawa, being an offensive standout is probably the only way any of the rookie defensemen stand a chance to get a shot in the NHL anytime soon.

The team just didn't seem to be able to get chemistry going today. Faubert would find himself working hard deep in the zone, but find himself without any help. The big line would rush into the zone, but without any real support would wind up right back out again from the slightest incidents.

Ten minutes in a slashing call would give Ottawa another shot on the powerplay. Much of the time tonight like last night it would seem as though the tough guys were out to make a name for themselves with their play, today Aaron Boogard taking the place of Toronto's Phil Oreskovic from yesterday's game. Some good chances would come out of this powerplay from both units, but nothing clicked.

As Pittsburgh's slashing penalty ended, Weller would take one for Ottawa. The confidence of the penalty killers seemed a little low, as the box would focus too much on the lone man between the circles, setting up potentially lethal screens, though they would get the puck out, and start to stand up at the blueline to kill off the penalty. Regin would work especially hard, managing to fish the puck into his control even when he lost the faceoff in the Pens' end.

Another penalty, to O'Brien for holding, would give the Pens 13 seconds of 5 on 3, but to no avail. Even a little good penalty killing can boost the spirits, and they started to move more, to think more before acting. A good stick by Karlsson wouldn't stop Pittsburgh from entering the zone, but it would put them offside. Faubert would also show some good aggressive penalty killing to finish it off.

Three minutes left, and the Pens would call a timeout, and end up holding back a very hungry Ottawa team looking like they were in powerplay mode. Elliot would leave and Ottawa would ice the original big line, plus O'Brien, calling their timeout to strategize. The strategy would seem to fail, as the puck spent most of the last minute down by Ottawa's empty net, although Regin would succeed in keeping Pittsburgh from getting and empty netter. A last rush would wind up offside, and Ottawa would finish the game being held back from mounting a last attack. The final shots for the period were Ottawa 15, Pittsburgh 9, with the Pens outshooting Ottawa 29-26 over the course of the game. Having won their first two games by two goal spreads, it didn't seem entirely unfair that they would lose their last game of the tournament to Pittsburgh, who beat them in last year's final game in Kitchener as well, by a two goal spread of 3 to 1.

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