Saturday, December 10, 2011

Feisty And Entertaining Senators Starting To Freefall

Vancouver 4 Ottawa 1

This is what Alanis Morissette meant by "irony".

On a night when Matt Carkner returned to the ice for the first time this season, the Senators and Canucks went at each other in a Bronx rules street brawl but Carkner himself didn't collect a single penalty minute.

I think that's irony. Perhaps it's a paradox or a coincidence or an anomaly. Whatever it was, the game was entertaining to say the least. If you wanted to say the most, it made grown men want to drive down to Kanata and rock the Canucks team bus posse style like they do in Philly and New York, even when the home team wins.

Sure, the Senators are in a bit of a freefall lately and can't seem to stay healthy, but Kanata fans definitely got a good Saturday night tilt to remember. The Canucks rolled into town as the biggest villains in the NHL thanks to their players making up for a distinct lack of toughness by becoming the most skilled divers and whiners in the league.

The Senators already had a problem with the Canucks because the last time they met on November 20, Jesse Winchester ended up on his back in the Vancouver bench thanks to an "aw shucks" Alex Burrows slyly opening the door at the right moment.

Chris Neil certainly had that on his mind as he proceeded to unleash hell on the Canucks in the first period, hitting everybody in white and green, getting his black and blue mug into Roberto Luongo's personal space (not much room there with all the illegal equipment) and making the CBC cameras follow him around like he was Sidney Crosby for a night.

Then Nick Foligno channeled a bit of his father's game and absolutely buried the bad luck plagued Cody Hodgson who was caught dipping his head down as Foligno came in for the hit. When Hodgson tried to get up, CBC commentator Gary Galley said he had "Bambi legs". It looked like a clean hit by Foligno because it was Hodgson who changed his position at the last second. But you didn't come here to have every hit analyzed to death. What matters is that Foligno delivered the hit, faced the consequences by fighting Dale Weise (and winning), and then didn't let that stop him from being physical the rest of the game. He got jobbed by the refs after hitting Ryan Kesler along the boards, getting a 2 and a 10 minute misconduct because Kesler sold the play like a good Canuck always does.

Foligno, along with Zack Smith, has been one of the biggest revelations of the Senators season thus far. Just like Smith, he's providing clutch scoring and showed tonight he can play it physical if he needs to. He's no longer the over-stickhandling giveaway machine he was last season. Sure, Foligno still sometimes plays the yo-yo out there but he's certainly not alone on the Senators in that regard.

Foligno has always had a character presence on this team but he seemed completely expendable because he just couldn't crack the top six. That era seems to be over. Even with natural centre Peter Regin coming back from injury and joining his line, Foligno stayed in the middle and took seven draws. He's having success at centre and it will be interesting to see if coach Paul MacLean keeps him there long-term.

Yet for all the fireworks, the reality is that the Senators aren't the same team with Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba out of the lineup. Even with them healthy, they can't seem to beat good teams but make hay against similar or weaker clubs. That's kept them afloat in the playoff race but leading up to Christmas they face the Boston Bruins, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the surprising Florida Panthers. They also face the Buffalo Sabres three times before New Years.

If Ottawa can't get their game together, they will be out of the playoff race a lot quicker than it seemed possible just last week when they were the toast of the town.

Black Aces Senators 3 Stars

1. Chris Neil
2. Nick Foligno
3. Daniel Alfredsson

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