That was closer than it had to be.
After building up a 3-0 lead before the game was half over, the Ottawa Senators looked to be in complete control of the game. But the Toronto Maple Leafs picked up their play, outshooting the Sens 30-13 in the final two periods alone, and almost tied the game up thanks to some late-game penalties taken by Sens players. Some good, clean, simple defensive play and some heroics from Brian Elliott kept Ottawa ahead, though, and now the Senators are tied with Toronto in the standings (although the Leafs have a game in hand).
Sens Hero: Brian Elliott
Without a doubt, the top performer for the Sens tonight was Elliott. He stopped 33 of 35 shots, playing his best when absolutely necessary--especially when the game was still only 1-0 and the Leafs had more than four minutes straight with at least one extra skater. There were a couple of spectacular saves, but most of them were just sound positional stops--and, best of all, usually with rebounds under control, if not completely smothered.
Game saver: The powerplay
Simple fact, really: The powerplay won the game for Ottawa tonight. And that's not something we've been able to say for the last few seasons. Toronto had already started coming back by the time the second period was underway, but a goal from each forward unit on the powerplay (although both by the same defence tandem) was what gave Ottawa what they needed to get the two points.
Sens Hero: Jason Spezza
Good rebound game from the top-line centreman tonight. He was fairly quiet offensively--no points, and just three shots on net--but Spezza seemed to buy into the support system Cory Clouston has been preaching since coming on board. He backchecked well, often coming right into the defensive zone even behind the goal line, and had a few good takeaways.
Sens Hero: Chris Phillips
Big Game Chris definitely found his stride tonight. And he didn't completely simplify it, either; Phillips did make some good breakout passes, but most of the time he focussed on the defensive side of the puck, deferring to partner Sergei Gonchar to take care of the offence. Which is how he's been most successful in his career to date, and how he's going to be most successful moving forward.
Sens Hero: Erik Karlsson
King K was back at his best tonight. There's obviously a fall-off from his partner last season (Andy Sutton) to David Hale in terms of defensive support, but Karlsson was skating well, passing well, and even using his body to effectively knock opposing forwards off the puck again. He's not likely to knock many forwards down, but by cutting in front of them to bump them off the puck is something he's really picking up well.
Sens Hero: D-to-D passing
The simple D-to-D pass was key to the Senators breakout tonight. For much of the game, it counter-acted the aggressive forecheck of the Leafs by buying Ottawa's defenders a valuable couple of seconds in order to find an opening to get the puck out of the zone. It was especially effective for the Gonchar-Phillips and Chris Campoli-Matt Carkner pairing, in both instances the more defensive of the two (Phillips and Carkner, respectively) passing to their more offensive partners to get the puck moved up the ice. Erik Karlsson and David Hale would benefit from playing together a little more effectively, but overall the cross-ice D-to-D pass was big for Ottawa tonight.
Street smarts: Chris Campoli
I'm becoming increasingly impressed with the smart plays Campoli often makes when he's on his game. They're often quite subtle, but his smart play is what made him effective in the playoffs last year, and it worked for him tonight, as well. One instance in particular I'm thinking of is where an Leafs forward was breaking towards the net while short-handed, and rather than trying to take the puck, Campoli just played the body; simple, subtle, smart play. There were a couple others, but I'm having a hard time thinking of them now.
What went wrong: Sitting on the lead
It's happened a couple of times this season, but I think one of the things that went wrong tonight was Ottawa straying from their game plan after taking the three-goal lead. The Leafs started slow, and that certainly benefited the Senators, but Ottawa was also forechecking and cycling the puck a lot more effectively in the first 20 minutes.
Step it up: Fourth line
Unless Zack Smith wants to be sent back to the AHL, he needs to get back to what did him well in the big league: Dumping the puck in, checking the defenceman, and working the puck down low. Instead of a soft dump into the corner--prime forechecking material--Z. Smith went for the glory when breaking down the wing, a low-percentage play when you're playing against Jean-Sebastien Giguere and shooting from that far away. Demotion isn't as much of a risk for Jesse Winchester, and physical forechecking isn't quite Ryan Shannon's style, but that fourth line needs to get back to cycling and grinding to get more ice time.