Leclaire leads Senators to 2-1 win over dirty Leafs

You know you were thinking about it. The clock was ticking down in a one-goal game. The Toronto Maple Leafs had their goalie pulled, and were buzzing around the Ottawa Senators' net. For the life of them, Ottawa couldn't clear the net. Then, with three seconds left, the puck found its way to Tomas Kaberle, who appeared to have a lot of net to shoot at from the spot where he was standing: The left face-off dot. But then, heroically, Pascal Leclaire slid across out of nowhere, and in a tremendous display of not only skill but also confidence, Leclaire was far out of the crease challenging the shooter, and deflected the puck away as the clocked ticked to zero.

The last two seasons have conditioned Senators fans to expect the worse. It's a nice change to get to experience the best, especially against the hated Maple Leafs.

Although the game began snoozeworthy, a huge open-ice bodycheck by Anton Volchenkov on Viktor Stalberg, who left the game and didn't return, woke Ottawa up and they brought it in the second. A dirty goal from Shean Donovan and the fourth line set the team going, and under a minute later Milan Michalek drew a penalty shot, which Daniel Alfredsson took and capitalized on. Thanks to great neutral-zone play, strong team defence, and solid goaltending, the Senators held on to notch their first win of the season.

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Ottawa out-hit the supposedly truculent Leafs 35-27, and outshot them 28-27. The Sens also had more takeaways, and won more faceoffs. All of that's kind of secondary to the fact that the Sens had more goals, though.

There were a lot more good things about tonight's game than there were about Saturday's loss to the Rangers, of that you can be sure. And that's despite playing without minute-muncher Filip Kuba, who often leads the team in ice time. That extra time was spread pretty evenly over the Sens' six defencemen, and none of them seemed overwhelmed by a little more ice time. Ottawa's best defenceman was Volchenkov, who threw the game-changing Stalberg hit as well as another big one earlier in the game (he had six hits on the night), had two shots, and had a couple of blocked shots. Matt Carkner also had a strong game, though, and surprised me--and doubtless others--with the fact that he fits in on the d-corps. I thought he'd be used much less in an average game, but he had 18:14 in ice time against the Leafs and was far from a liability.

Erik Karlsson looked a lot more comfortable in his second NHL game. He didn't continue his assist streak, unfortunately (although he did get his first NHL penalty), but he didn't give up a partial breakaway, either. If he continues improving game-to-game at this rate, I expect his first hat trick within the first ten games of the season. Even if his improvement slows down somewhat, he definitely looks like an NHL defenceman.

Otherwise on the blue line, Alex Picard was reliable enough, as was Chris Campoli--although neither was stellar. Chris Phillips played supporter to Volchenkov, and had a pretty good physical game, as well--five hits, and a great facewash right in Alexei Ponikarovski's face.

Up front, the team was led by Daniel Alfredsson from the start. He was in right after the opening faceoff to forecheck on Kaberle, and didn't stop there. His shootout goal was a thing of beauty; he played off the perception that he's a breakaway shooter, sold Jonas Gustavsson on the shot, and went to the backhand for what looked like an easy one. Got a couple shots, threw a couple hits, blocked a couple shots, and even won a faceoff for good measure.

Along with Alfredsson, the top line was strong. Milan Michalek drew the penalty shot purely thanks to his speed (and a beautiful pass from the captain), and finished with three shots. Jason Spezza had two shots, and both of them spent some time killing penalties--interesting to see, especially with regard to Spezza, but they handled it well. Cory Clouston seems to have a sense of when he can experiment with things like that and when he can't, which will be great to follow through the year--and hopefully some more, if we might be spoiled enough to get some head-coach consistency.

Let's talk about the fourth line, and notably the cheapest player on that fourth line: Donovan. He played hard, and caused plenty of disturbance in front of the Toronto net. In short, he looked like a player who didn't want to sit in the press box, but instead of complaining decided to make the best of his opportunity to get into the lineup. I'm not sure who I'd rather see leave when Ryan Shannon or Jesse Winchester comes back from injury, but I don't want to see Donovan miss many more games. And, as overpaid as they are in their fourth-line roles, Chris Kelly and Jarkko Ruutu aren't bad players to have down there, either (and both had assists on the Donovan goal).

Not only did winger Alex Kovalev get his first shot of the season at 8:35 of period one in game two, he also got his second later in the game and apparently was credited with two hits. He was in forechecking, but more important was the evident chemistry developing between himself and Nick Foligno. They play contrasting styles, but could complement each other really well if this trend continues.

As much as I chalk the win up to individuals, it was also attributed to the Command Kloustonom style. Strong pressure, forechecking and backchecking, steady pressure in the neutral zone, and good man-to-man coverage in the defensive zone did it. Although we have yet to see anything from the powerplay, the penalty kill was largely effective tonight, with one exception--a Kaberle pass that Matt Stajan put right in the net. All in all, though, this makes for a happy few days until the Sens play on Thursday.

Darren's Take: The Sens were a far better team than they were in the season opener, Pascal Leclaire made key saves, and Phillips and Volchenkov played extremely solid D. I also have to recognize Matt Carkner's excellent play, particularly since I was one of those who didn't feel he was going to be able to handle an NHL role. That being said, there are still a lot of issues that the team has to work on. First and foremost, goal-scoring still doesn't seem to come naturally to the team yet: one of the Senators' goals was a borderline high-stick, and the other one was a penalty shot that should perhaps have only been a double-minor penalty, without the penalty shot. Still, though fans of the blue and white might argue the calls, they really can't argue that the Senators deserved to win it, which is what counts in the end.

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