Thursday, November 5, 2009

Spezza And Neil Stun The Bolts

With his body bent over and his fist pumping the air, Jason Spezza was the very picture of relief as he led his Ottawa Senators to a gritty 3-2 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lighting.

Not only was it Spezza's third point of the night after sitting out two losses with a back injury, it was his first goal of the season and you could just sense the world tumbling off of his shoulders as the crowd and his teammates jumped to their feet in unison.

You could sense that the players were genuinely just as thrilled to see Spezza break the goosegg as they were about winning. Guys were laughing and giving him facewashes in a scrum after the goal and Spezza skated away as the 1st Star of the game.

And this offensive explosion couldn't have come at a better time for the young centre. If you listened to the call-in and pre-game shows on the 1200, fans and media members were getting tired of repeating the refrain that "at least he's playing well defensively". In particular, a couple of the pre-game show personalities were getting on his case, most noticeably Mike Eastwood, who seemingly never has anything nice to say about a skilled hockey player in this town.

For a guy who was asked to play better in his own end for years, Spezza complied this season but his point production wasn't as high as it used to be, due to losing his 50 goal scoring linemate and adjusting to new players on his wing while struggling with a nagging back injury.

But, as some have noted, Spezza seems to be a different player this season. Always a popular player in the room, Spezza is now becoming a leader (that's the sound of Jacques Martin's jaw hitting the floor). It's the little things you notice. He got married in the off-season. He hosted the team's annual Halloween bash at his home downtown. He stuck up for the organization in the Dany Heatley dispute, even though it meant he had to criticize his best friend on the team.

And perhaps the biggest sign is the way the players reacted after he scored that goal. It showed respect for the guy who was once one of the most criticised players in Ottawa Senators history.

The other item of note from this game has to be the absolutely crushing hit that Chris Neil delivered to rookie Victor Hedman in the 2nd period. It was like watching a wrecking ball crumple a phone booth. After the perfectly legal hit, Hedman was crumpled up on the ice gasping for breath and the big-minute player didn't return after going straight to the dressing room. With sensitivities heightened due to the near tragic hit in the OHL recently, you might expect some to call the hit "dirty". Yet TSN's Bob McKenzie, who is no fan of head shots and vicious acts on the ice, called it an "outstanding hockey hit". In a bizarre moment, a Tampa TV colour commentator (who I believe is Stanley Cup winning coach Terry Crisp) took offense at the hit and accused Neil of only being brave on home ice.

Anyone who has watched Neil over the course of his career knows that number 25 plays the same way every night, whether he's at home or not. It's unfortunate that Hedman was hurt, but that's part of hockey. Always has been and always will.

The real dilemma is how do you encourage hits like Neil's, and discourage the unfortunate hit and run we saw in the OHL recently that may have ended a young man's career. The line is very thin and often a couple of inches either way is the only difference between a clean and a dirty hit.

Otherwise, a fine night for the Ottawa Senators. It was a much needed victory for a team that is going to start playing a ridiculously compressed schedule between now and the Olympic break.

Full marks to the Lightning for a solid road game, but it was Spezza's night to shine.

Black Aces Senators Three Stars

1. Jason Spezza
2. Daniel Alfredsson
3. Mike Fisher


Alex Picard showed up to play tonight. He had a hell of a first period and was all over the puck. If only he could find that confidence on a regular basis. He'd play Chris Campoli out of a job...... You know you're watching the Tampa Bay broadcast when one of the main sponsors for a ticket giveaway is "Mr. Empanada"........ You have to see this picture...... The Tampa play-by-play guys couldn't get over how aggressive Ottawa was on the penalty kill. When you think about it, the Senators are just as exciting to watch shorthanded as they are on the power-play. The ice just always seems to open up for Alfie, Fisher and Michalek.... With that being said, the Senators gave up two power play goals tonight, one of them a beauty by Steve Stamkos. The sophomore star is starting to explode in this league right now. The worst and best thing the Lightning have done in the past two years is hire then fire Barry Melrose. Rick Tochett came in and has done a real good job with this team and more importantly, he believed in Stamkos and didn't try to coach him through the media like Melrose did....... Speaking of Tochett, he is still a mean looking s.o.b. He looks like he could lace them up and hold his own in the corners of any NHL rink. Could you imagine what Tochett would have done to a player like Brian "Peach Fuzz" Lee back in the day? The would have had to get the shovels out to clean up the debris......

One sentence I could never have imagined writing this season: Antero Nittymaki is pretty good, but he's no Ondrej Pavelec......... You have to feel for Ryan Shannon. It seems like opposing players are always looking to crush this kid, kinda like the way Sylvester starts salivating when he sees a vulnerable Tweety out in the open. Except Shannon isn't as lucky as Tweety. He's had at least two concussions in two seasons and Andrej Meszaros was the latest player to take a healthy run at him. Fortunately, Shannon avoided the oncoming train.....

Want to see a ranking of NHL fighters based on a sophisticated interpretation of statistics based on the principals of chess? Behind The Net has the top 10 for you and, no surprise, Montreal's Georges Laraque is at the top of the list. What may surprise Sens fans is that there is no Chris Neil on that list. How sound can the list be without Neiler anyways? ..... There's something wrong when two heart and soul guys like Shean Donovan and Jesse Winchester are forced to sit because of hockey politics. The politics I speak of? Jonathan Cheechoo getting far too many chances to wow us with his non-existent skating ability because the boss traded for him as part of the Dany Heatley package. It's just not right..... For all the talk that the Leafs may have handed the number one pick in the 2010 Entry Draft to Boston for Phil Kessell, wouldn't it be funny if the Carolina Hurricanes keep bottoming out and scoop up the lottery pick from under the Bruins? Brian Burke would be the happiest guy in the NHL outside of Taylor Hall.......

All aboard the Carkbus

Matt Carkner has a fan club in Westport, Ontario, where he reportedly spends his off-season (he was born in nearby Winchester) and they actually charter a bus and take fans into Kanata from the Cove Country Inn. And yes, it's called the Carkbus. Thanks to Andrew for sending the email out and for the picture below of the actual flyer that hangs in the "Cove". So good...

The Tampa play-by-play guys evidently have no idea where Carkner is from. When Carks took on Ryan Craig at the end of the 2nd period, one of them blurted out something about the "two big Western boys". Craig was born in Abbotsford, B.C. so 1 out of 2 ain't bad. Carkner played 1 game for the Sharks so maybe that is what they were referring to. To be fair, with a name like Carkner, how can you not envision bone-cold ice rinks in the middle of Moose Jaw or Red Deer?


Anonymous said...

Nice post.

Donovon, Winchester or Cheechoo? I'd like to see Donovon in the lineup, but I'd still like Cheech over Winchester. I think the team has to help Cheechoo out of his slump. They have dollars tied up, but he also can score. Winchester works hard, but he'll never get 20 goals.

Also, I have a different view on the comments about Spezza's leadership development. I've always felt that he's a natural leader and that he should have been treated as such a long time ago. I don't put much stock in him throwing a Halloween party or sticking up for the organization. I know some people disagree.

Jerome Iginla has stuck up for departed players (Marc Savard), in the past. I just think a good leader has good judgement. Spezza has that level-headed judgement as well.

You can see that when Emery was being scapegoated, he didn't join the parade. Sometimes a captain needs the courage to do the right thing. Jerome oozes that.

Peter said...

I heard the commentator's calling Neil a hometown performer, I think what the quote was something like, "You don't see him running around like that on the road." I thought it was pretty weird, too, although I can't say I've ever really noted any difference in his play. I have a feeling you're right, and the Tampa guys just don't see him enough to say things like that.

As for Eastwood, it's not just skilled guys; I don't know if he's said a positive thing ever. It's great when he mocks the very callers who are making his call-in show a success, thereby guaranteeing his job. You've just got to wonder.

number11 said...

As for that Neil 'hometown hitter' comment, anyone remember this ?

Anonymous said...

ya that was a great one - i was there.

For the most part though, and ive heard it for a few years now from a few diff people; c neil plays a lot harder at home than on the road.

That was a great blog BTW.