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.

Ducks light up Cam Talbot to defeat Oilers

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Chris Wagner‘s first career playoff goal was the turning point in Game 3 for the Anaheim Ducks, as they defeated the Edmonton Oilers 6-3 to get their first win of this series.

Connor McDavid had just scored (another) spectacular goal, this one to get the Oilers back on even terms at three goals apiece after they fell behind 3-0 in the opening period. The orange crush at Rogers Place was, naturally, in a frenzy at the time.

The tide of this game had suddenly turned in favor of the home team, which had a 2-0 series lead.

As suddenly as the Oilers had come back to tie the game, the Ducks regained the lead. Wagner fired the puck from the side boards toward Cam Talbot, who misplayed the puck off his right arm and into the net.

That was only one part of a difficult night for Talbot, who allowed six goals on 28 shots. Anaheim had built up a three-goal lead less than 12 minutes in and needed only six shots to do so.

Talk about a quick turn of events. Talbot was sensational in Game 2, backstopping the Oilers to another road win with a 39-save performance.Edmonton’s troubles started early in Game 3. Rickard Rakell scored just 25 seconds in on a breakaway and the Ducks were rolling from there.

Wagner’s goal came just 48 seconds after McDavid tied the game. Jakob Silfverberg and Ryan Kesler increased the Anaheim lead in the third period.

This time, there was no inspired comeback from the Oilers.

While the Ducks found their scoring touch, they also received a 24-save performance from John Gibson. He was at his best in the second period, making a couple of key saves, including a great shoulder stop off a three-on-one rush.

Game 4 goes Wednesday in Edmonton.

Video: Connor McDavid puts on a show with this spectacular goal

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Connor McDavid has his first goal of this series against the Anaheim Ducks — and it was a beauty.

(Another spectacular McDavid goal? Get out!)

With one assist so far in this series, McDavid brought the crowd in Edmonton to its feet with a quick stop and cut back to his left against Sami Vatanen, followed immediately with a perfect wrist shot top corner on John Gibson.

“McWow!” is right.

The Oilers fell behind 3-0 in the first period, but that goal from McDavid tied the game before the midway point of the second period.

The celebration didn’t last long.

Just 48 seconds later, Chris Wagner‘s shot from the side boards, a rather harmless looking attempt, was misplayed by Cam Talbot to put Anaheim back in front by a score of 4-3. That’s the score heading into the third period.

‘We weren’t even competitive’ — Blues coach hints at lineup changes for Game 4

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Lineup adjustments can be a common occurrence in the playoffs. Based on his comments Sunday, St. Louis Blues coach Mike Yeo is seriously looking to make some changes for Game 4.

The Blues trail the Nashville Predators 2-1 in the series, following a disappointing 3-1 loss on Sunday.

Nashville dominated puck possession for long stretches, putting this one away on a goal from Roman Josi after just such a shift — caused by a Blues turnover in the defensive end — late in the third period.

Yeo praised the Predators for the way they checked the Blues, but was straight to the point with his assessment of his team’s performance.

“I mean, we scored one goal tonight. Fact of the matter is, for a large part of the game, we weren’t even competitive,” he told reporters.

“We obviously have to be way better. We have to make a couple of changes, personnel-wise, for the next game and look at the tape and see what we can do … a little bit better than tonight because it wasn’t good enough.”

Despite getting outplayed, the Blues were, for much of the second half of the game, one shot away from the tying goal. But hopes of a possible comeback were nullified after a shift of about 1:10 of furious Nashville possession in the offensive zone capped off by the Josi blast.

Blues defensemen Joel Edmundson and Colton Parayko — who both had a miserable day in terms of puck possession — had been stuck on the ice for almost two minutes before Josi scored, per NHL.com.

That’s one glaring example.

“The way we played in our [defensive zone] matched the way that we executed, matched the way that we competed all over the ice,” said Yeo.

“We were waiting to see what they were going to do. We were reacting to that. So we’ve got to initiate much better.”

No mic? No problem: Oilers fans sing American, Canadian national anthems

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There was apparently an issue with a microphone used for the national anthems prior to Game 3 between the Ducks and Oilers in Edmonton.

Canadian country music star Brett Kissel was supposed to perform the anthems, however, as he stepped up to the mic, he soon discovered that there seemed to be a malfunction.

With some quick encouragement from Kissel, fans at Rogers Place stole the show with stirring renditions of both the American and Canadian national anthems.

Here is the Star Spangled Banner:

Here is O Canada: