Monday, March 5, 2012

Are the Ottawa Senators for Real?

Leading into the beginning of this season, hockey experts and prognosticators (and probably even Sens management included) were writing off the Sens season before it began labeling it a rebuild. Now with less than 20 games to play, Ottawa is firmly in the post season with a seven point cushion. Again, most are not predicting the Ottawa Senators to win the Stanley Cup, or even win a round. Is that a mistake? Do they have a shot? Are the Ottawa Senators for real?

What does it take to win a Championship? Most would say you need to have a team that has a balance of veteran leaders, and youthful exuberance. Veteran players who know how to win, have playoff experience, know what it takes and can lead the way. Young players who are hungry and talented with the energy to play at the highest level of intensity over a long grueling playoff drive. The team also needs a bonafied starting goalie and a star player or two, and plenty of depth on defense. The Head Coach needs to have the team playing a style that the players buy into, and is successful. It also helps to have the Ray Bourque factor, win it for the Gipper if you will to rally around. That being said, do the Sens have what it takes?

Ottawa has an abundance of playoff experience. While the team has never won the Stanley Cup, Sergei Gonchar has a cup ring from his tour in Pittsburgh. That is the only Cup ring on the team. However there are several players remaining from the 2007 appearance in the Stanley Cup finals including, Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Neil, and Chris Phillips. The teams AHL affiliate Binghamton Senators were last years Calder Cup Champions. Several players from that Championship roster are now playing in Ottawa including, Colin Greening, Zack Smith, Eric Condra, Jared Cowen, Bobby Butler, and Kaspars Daugavins. Plenty of playoff experience there!

As for leadership, team captain Daniel Alfredsson is well respected as a leader on the ice, in the locker room, and in the community. He has been the team Captain for 13 years and his leadership and value to the franchise has drawn comparisons to Steve Yzermans value to the Detroit Red Wings. Some teams Assistant Captains are role players and have a limited impact. Not in Ottawa. Chris Phillips is the teams top shut down defender and plays big minutes. Jason Spezza is the first line center and an All-Star player. With Gonchar, Neil, and Carkner also providing some leadership the Sens have plenty of veterans to lead the way.

Ottawa has plenty of players 25 years or younger on the roster including, Erik Karlsson, Kyle Turris, Colin Greening,  Nick Foligno, Zack Smith, Jared Cowen, Bobby Butler, Eric Condra and Jim O’ Brien. With top scorers Jason Spezza, and Milan Michalek both under 30 and playing in their prime and starting goalie Craig Anderson just 30 years old, the Sens have perhaps the perfect blend of veterans, stars, and youth.

Anderson has started in 56 games this season and has been a work horse for the Sens. His current finger injury may actually be a blessing in disguise. It has provided the opportunity to give Anderson a rest and allowed future star Robin Lehner to showcase his abilities. Ottawa has been somewhat of a goalie graveyard in recent years and has been very hard on its goalies such as Patrick Lalime, Damien Rhodes, Dominik Hasek, Ray Emery Brian Elliott, and Pascal Leclaire to name a few. With Anderson as the go-to-guy and Lehner waiting willing and able in the wings, the position of goal tending may never have been better than it is right now.

The teams’ deepest position could possibly be defense. Erik Karlsson is having a season worthy of Norris Trophy consideration, even the Hart Trophy is beginning to look like at least a nomination. Veteran defenders Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba both suffered disappointing seasons the year prior and even received boos from the home crown on opening night. Those days are now long forgotten as Gonchar and Kuba are playing good hockey and earning their cap hits. Phillips and Cowen are two tough players, who play tough minutes defending against the opposition’s top offensive threats night in and night out. Carkner and recently acquired Matt Gilroy round out the defense corps, providing either tough defensive defense in Carkner, or puck moving offensive abilities in Gilroy.

Head Coach Paul MacLean is taking a lot of the credit for the teams’ success this season. GM Bryan Murray has publicly endorsed his coach at times this season saying he has brought the fun back to the game for the team. MacLean has players playing in a role that suits their comfort zone, and has given the team a breath of confidence previously missing. Coach MacLean is a sure bet to be a nomination for the Jack Adams award as the Leagues best Coach.

This could also potentially be the final season for team Captain Alfredsson. The All-Star Captain is now 39 years old, but still playing at an All-Star level. Having had a career full of injuries including off season back surgery last summer, Alfie may be looking to hang ‘em up after this season. Alfredsson is the most prominent player in the teams’ modern history era. Having him Captain the All-Star game in Ottawa and having the NHL commissioner Gary Bettman present him with the Stanley Cup in June would cap off a brilliant career and cement his legacy in Ottawa immortalizing him. Alfredsson has never won the Cup, and his team mates who think the world of him would do anything to win it for Alfie.

Having looked at what it takes to win a Championship, and what has made the Senators successful this season, I believe Ottawa may be the most underrated team heading into the post season. Are the Senators for real? Can they go all the way? It won’t be easy, it never is. But one thing the players on this team have shown is they believe in themselves. They believe they can beat anyone. They believe they have the stuff to win the Stanley Cup, do you believe in them?

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