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.

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

“The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.