2010-2011 NHL season preview: Ottawa Senators

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danielalfredsson1.jpgLast season: (44-32-6, 94 points, 2nd in Northeast Division, 5th in Eastern Conference) If anyone thought the Senators would be fifth in the East at the start of last season, we all would’ve happily called them liars and been done with it. Instead, the Sens took advantage of well-timed win streaks and rode the goaltending hot hand in Brian Elliott.

Head coach: Cory Clouston’s first full season was a successful one and his tenure in Ottawa has been a surprise hit. After taking over with 34 games left to play in the 2008-09 season, Clouston’s teams have been more than solid and downright pesky to deal with on a nightly basis. That said, consistency is the bugaboo for the Senators and locking that down will be Clouston’s next trick.

Key departures: D Anton Volchenkov, F Matt Cullen, D Andy Sutton, F Jonathan Cheechoo. All right, so they won’t miss Cheechoo, but losing Volchenkov is a big blow for the defensive play of the team. Cullen and Sutton were deadline acquisitions lost to free agency.

Key arrivals: D Sergei Gonchar, D David Hale. Gonchar is the one big signing the team made causing a definitive shift in how they will handle their work along the blue line. Switching from a defensive stopper like Volchenkov to an offensive-minded power play quarterback like Gonchar puts the emphasis on offense for the Senators. Gonchar had 50 points for the Penguins last year. The Sens top scoring defenseman last season was Filip Kuba with 28 points. Upgrade time, y’all.

Under pressure: It’s almost unfair to pick him, but Jason Spezza carries a lot of the weight in Ottawa. After a crazy summer that saw rumors about him supposedly wanting to be traded because of having difficulties dealing with the Ottawa fans and media (yes, really) to all those issues being settled finally, there’s no doubt that the relationship is a bit strained.

Spezza already plays in the shadow of Daniel Alfredsson and with Mike Fisher having a breakout year last season, Spezza has become the third or fourth banana in Canada’s capital yet still takes the heat as if he was the prime minister. Life sucks sometimes and, in the paraphrased words of Denis Leary, perhaps Jason Spezza should just get a helmet. Playing to his potential would give Ottawa a very dangerous top line. Playing while sulking helps make the Sens very inconsistent.

Protecting the house: If one thing is going to be the undoing of the Senators this year, it’s goaltending. They’ll start the year with Elliott and Pascal Leclaire dueling for the No. 1 job, but in reality will just split time until someone proves that they want it bad enough. Waiting in the wings in the minors will be prospect Robin Lehner who has turned some heads during the preseason. If things bottom out fast with both Elliott and Leclaire, don’t be shocked if Lehner gets a call to see what he can do to keep the Sens going.

Defensively, Gonchar leads the way and young Swede Erik Karlsson has stolen some of the spotlight away from the likes of currently injured Filip Kuba as well as Chris Campoli. While Kuba is out, Campoli figures to get a lot more work as does ‘Prime Time’ Brian Lee. Long-time Sens stalwart Chris Phillips is still holding down the fort in Ottawa and making the Sens decision to keep him over Wade Redden a couple years ago look that much smarter.

Top line we’d like to see: Milan Michalek-Spezza-Alfredsson. OK so this is the top line we’ll see this season. Of course, a lot of that hinges on how well Michalek returns from surgery and how healthy Alfredsson can stay. Never mind the mental mettle of Spezza in all this, this is a scoring line that should be able to run with any top line in the NHL. That said, there’s still an awful lot of ‘what if’s’ that surround this unit. They’re basically a microcosm of what it’s like to be the Ottawa Senators.

Oh captain, my captain: Alfredsson is the face of the franchise and you’ll have to behead him like the Highlander to make him not be captain. He leads them by example and whether or not you’re a believer in his style, the fans in Ottawa would at least follow him into any fire. You’d have to think the players feel the same way after all these years.

mattcarkner1.jpgStreet fighting man: The Sens main combatants are defenseman Matt Carkner who fears no punch and agitator extraordinaire Chris Neil. Carkner dropped the gloves 24 times last season, meanwhile Neil did so just 13 times. To say that there’s not a fight that Carkner doesn’t like would mean you were lying through your lack of teeth. Those of you thinking that pest Jarkko Ruutu would make this list would be wrong. He’s merely a dangerous pest with just two fights to his credit last year.

Best-case scenario: The top line has a complete breakout season with Alfredsson regaining his old form and helping Spezza and Michalek have career years. The injury bug that plagued the Sens last year goes away while young forwards like Nick Foligno and Peter Regin fulfill their promise and become solid second- and third-line performers. Mike Fisher picks up where he left off last year. Gonchar helps the team become more effective on the power play and one of either Elliott or Leclaire takes the reins and becomes the consistent goalie the Senators have always desired while leading the Sens to a division title and deep run through the playoffs.

Worst-case scenario: Alfredsson shows his age and Spezza struggles under the pressure of having the captain not do well on his wing. Elliott and Leclaire both play miserably while the defense shows how much it misses Volchenkov and his leadership. Regin and Foligno both tread water while the Sens desperately seek some kind of extra help while their top line struggles. Not even Robin Lehner can save the season and the Sens miss the playoffs after not having enough hot streaks to get them through.

Keeping it real: The Sens can be a very good team. Not a great team, but one that flies just far enough under the radar to not get noticed while continuing to win games and land at the low end of the race for the playoffs. The Senators had a lot of good luck go their way last year not to mention clutch scoring to avoid going to shootouts. Banking on that helping you out two years in a row is a fool’s bet. This team truly will only go as far as the goaltending will take them as the rest of the team is decent.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Senators are a perfect 3. Playing in the weaker Eastern Conference helps make things a bit easier to deal with and while lots of things can break right to get Ottawa into the playoffs and possibly win a round or two, lots of things could go wrong and sink this team hard. Too many questions that could go either way make the Senators a perfectly average team.

Who can challenge Red Wings’ Larkin as NHL’s fastest skater?

NEWARK, NJ - NOVEMBER 25: Dylan Larkin #71 of the Detroit Red Wings skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on November 25, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. The Red Wings defeated the Devils 5-4 in overtime.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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As their core players from recent years have started to age and move on, the Detroit Red Wings have undergone a transition period with several new faces taking over the roster.

One of the players that is going to be counted on to be a key piece moving forward in almost certainly going to be 20-year-old forward Dylan Larkin, a top-five finisher in the 2016 Calder Trophy voting and currently one of the fastest skaters in the NHL.

He will be the focus from the Red Wings’ side of their Star Sunday matchup with the New York Rangers on NBC Sunday afternoon.

Larkin made a name for himself a year ago when he became the first teenager to make the Red Wings’ opening night roster in more than 15 years, and then followed it up with an outstanding rookie campaign that saw him finish as the team’s leading goal scorer (23) and third leading leading point producer (45), trailing only long-time Red Wings legends Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. While his assist numbers have fallen off a bit this season, he is still on pace to top the 20-goal mark again. If he does he would be just the 13th player over the past 11 years to have two 20-goal seasons before their 21st birthday (joining Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Matt Duchene, Taylor Hall, Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar, Nathan MacKinnon, Sean Monahan, Jeff Skinner, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews and John Tavares).

His performance a year ago earned him a trip to the 2016 All-Star game in Nashville where he helped steal the show at the skills competition by breaking Mike Gartner’s 19-year-old record.

Larkin won’t have a chance to defend his crown at the 2017 NHL All-Star weekend in Los Angeles, but there are a handful of players that might be able to make a run at his record.

Some of the favorites to win this year’s competition should include:

  • Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (who was not at the All-Star game a year ago due to injury) would seem to be the leading favorite to not only win the competition this season if he participates in, but to perhaps also break Larkin’s record. When he is on the ice he always seems to be playing the game at a different speed than everybody else and is already one of the most game-breaking players in the league.
  • Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, currently one of the few bright spots on the Avalanche roster, is also a worthy contender and has been one of the fastest skaters in the league from the minute he arrived as the No. 1 overall pick in 2013. His acceleration is similar to Olympic speed skaters.
  • Erik Karlsson is probably the one defenseman in the league that could have a shot at winning the competition given the way he can blow past even the fastest forwards in the league every night.

NHL on NBC: Red Wings look to take advantage of Rangers’ struggling defense

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 19: Brandon Pirri #73 of the New York Rangers goes up against Justin Abdelkader #8 and Tomas Tatar #21 of the Detroit Red Wings at Madison Square Garden on October 19, 2016 in New York City. The Red Wings defeated the Rangers 2-1.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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NBC’s coverage of the NHL continues on Sunday afternoon when the New York Rangers pay a visit to the Detroit Red Wings. You can watch all of the action on NBC starting at 12:30 p.m. ET or on our live stream here.

It is another Star Sunday in Detroit on Sunday afternoon when the Rangers visit the Red Wings, with the focus of the game falling on New York defenseman Ryan McDonagh and Detroit’s Dylan Larkin.

For the Red Wings, the time is now for them to start accumulating points if they are going to extend their playoff streak to a 26th season. They enter play on Sunday in 14th place in the Eastern Conference with 47 points in their first 46 games, a pace that has them on track for only 80 points. That would be the organization’s lowest point total (excluding lockout shortened seasons) since 1990-91, the year their current postseason streak started.

The good news is they have already started to pick up some points in recent games and are carrying a four-game point streak into Sunday’s game against the Rangers. Still sitting four points back of a wild card spot (while the team they are chasing still has two games in hand) and five points out of third place in the Atlantic Division they are still going to have plenty of work to do to make up that ground over the next couple of months.

The Rangers, meanwhile, still have a solid hold on a playoff spot and have continued to fill the net as one of the NHL’s best offensive teams.

The problem is they can’t seem to stop anybody from scoring right now, either.

Over their past 12 games dating back to Dec. 20 the Rangers have held teams to less than three goals just three times, and have allowed more than four goals seven times. That includes three games where they have allowed at least seven goals. Overall, they have allowed 50 goals during the past 12 games (that is more than 4.1 per game).

Defense was a huge question mark coming into this season for the Rangers, and there has been nothing during the season that has eliminated that concern. In recent years when the defense has been an issue (especially last season) Henrik Lundqvist has always been good enough to mask whatever problems existed. But at 34 years old there is going to come a point where his play starts to a dip a little bit and we might have started to reach that point this season. He carries a .902 save percentage into Sunday’s game which would be the worst mark (by far) of his career to this point.

Puck drop on Sunday afternoon is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. ET. Catch all of the action on NBC or on our live stream.

‘It’s embarrassing,’ says Gulutzan after lopsided loss to Oilers

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 21:  Head coach Glen Gulutzan of the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on November 21, 2011 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Battle of Alberta was a tad lopsided Saturday.

The Edmonton Oilers scored early. They scored often. And despite holding a distinct advantage in shots on goal and puck possession, the rival Calgary Flames couldn’t get much going until the third period and by then the damage had been done.

The Oilers, tied in points with the San Jose Sharks, are one point back of the Anaheim Ducks for the Pacific Division lead after their 7-3 win over the Flames. Laurent Brossoit also collected his first career NHL victory.

This game wasn’t even six minutes old when Jordan Eberle scored to give Edmonton a three-goal lead. Chad Johnson was promptly pulled from the Calgary net, making one save on four shots faced.

The Flames were bad from the start. They didn’t get any better in the second period, falling behind five goals after 40 minutes and watching as the likes of Eberle and Connor McDavid piled on for a regular-season series sweep of Calgary.

Flames coach Glen Gulutzan had some strong words to describe the play of his team, which still holds down a wild card spot in the West.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said, per the Calgary Sun. “Our resolve to stick to it wasn’t there.”

“That’s a bunch of games in a row now where we’ve fallen behind and haven’t been able to get any push-back. And in our rink, it’s unacceptable,” added Mark Giordano.

The coach was utterly perplexed by his team’s breakdown on Edmonton’s third goal, which started off as a rush in the neutral zone and finished with Eberle, wide open down the right wing with a clear path to the net, beating Johnson on the shot.

“I don’t know what we were doing,” said Gulutzan. “I actually have no explanation for what our ‘D’ were doing on the third goal. It was a complete mistake.”

That should be concerning for the Flames.

They hold a playoff spot, but just barely with the Vancouver Canucks one point back and with two games in hand.

Talk about a Wild comeback for Minnesota

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The Minnesota Wild took back sole possession of the lead in the Central Division, thanks to a thrilling comeback win over the Pacific Division-leading Anaheim Ducks on Saturday.

Minnesota trailed 3-1 early in the second period. Jason Zucker closed the deficit in the middle period, before they took the lead for good thanks to a frenzy of three goals from Erik Haula, Ryan Suter and Zucker in 1:59 late in regulation for a 5-3 victory.

“When we came in in between the second and third, knowing we were only down a goal, and knowing our history, we didn’t think we were out of it,” said coach Bruce Boudreau, per the Pioneer Press.

And so the Wild remain one of the hottest teams in the league, leading Chicago by two points.

While it’s a comeback for them, the Ducks don’t quite see it the same way.

“It’s not what they did, to be honest. We self-imploded. Gave up too many opportunities, left our goalie out to dry,” said Cam Fowler.

Additional bad news for the Ducks, however, was that goalie John Gibson left the game in the second period with an upper-body injury, and didn’t return.