We’re now just two weeks away from the play-offs, and with the warmer weather comes a ratcheting up of the tension; every little things feels more important and momentous. We’ve discussed a potential first round match-up with the Sens’ provincial rivals ad nauseam already, and if it truly does come to pass we will dedicate more digital ink to the matter, but for the purpose of this column I’ve got some other thoughts. Just know that I’m also thinking about it. And I can’t decide if I’m more excited or terrified.
On slashing and “letting them play”
Let’s get something out of the way right off the top: Sidney Crosby’s slash on Marc Methot last night was dirty and I’m not here to defend it. It was also, unfortunately, very common place in today’s NHL. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that Johnny Gaudreau had his hand broken after a series of slashes in a game against the Minnesota Wild. At the end of the lockout in 2005, the league asked that the referees actually enforce the rules contained in the rule-book but there’s been a slow erosion in the intervening years. Many coaches, players, GMs, and fans, complained that there were simply too many power plays in that 2005-06 season. “Why can’t we just let them play?” was a common refrain. Listen to most broadcasts and you’re likely to hear the commentators noting approvingly if the refs “aren’t deciding the outcome of the game”. These things are related, because it’s awfully hard to call a slash on the hands if everyone freaks out every time you do.
It’s a shame the Sens lost Methot for last night’s game, and now likely for a significant amount of time, but these kinds of slashes happen all the time, every game. It’s going to take a serious commitment to get them out for good — one I’m not sure the league, or its fans, are ready to make.
Perhaps the most predictable part of an Ottawa Senators game for the last half of this season has been the tandem of Tom Pyatt and Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Of all the players on the Sens’ roster, perhaps no two have more deeply earned Guy Boucher’s trust. Together with Mike Hoffman the trio often faces off against the opposition’s top line, Pyatt and Pageau are also regularly asked to kill penalties, but they’ve been perhaps most successful at 4v4. Almost without fault, when a 4v4 (or 3v3) situation arises Boucher will send his two favourites over the boards. I’ve been skeptical of this tactic but so far the results have been fantastic: the Sens are getting almost 60% of all shot attempts when the two are on together, which is an incredible number. There is of course a sample issue at play here, they’ve only played 25 minutes 4v4, but nonetheless the results are positive. The numbers are also fantastic 3v3, though the sample there is even smaller.
To my thinking Boucher overvalues the tandem, but at the very least they are getting excellent results in the oddball minutes he’s giving them.
Bingo, Bingo, Bingo
Colin White’s status has been a hot topic around these parts, but it bears repeating that Binghamton’s current status as AHL laughing stock can’t be helping the Sens’ case that the young draft pick should accept an ATO. The B-Sens are 2-7-0-1 in their last ten and now sport a -56 goal differential on the season. Ouch.
At the start of the year, it was widely assumed that the team wouldn’t be very strong but virtually everyone on the roster has under-performed expectations. It’s been a long, painful fall from the peak of Calder Cup glory. Pierre Dorion and Randy Lee have some work ahead of them to ice a competitive team in their new home in Belleville next year.
You may have heard that the NHL’s current play-off format is about to make it so that one of three teams with the best record in the entire league doesn’t make it out of the first round. First things first: this current system was not designed to be fair, it was designed to generate more play-off series between divisional “rivals”. That’s not to say the league shouldn’t care about being “fair”, but this system was never set up to do that. If you asked Gary Bettman, and he had to answer truthfully, he’d probably tell you he’s ecstatic with the projected match-ups. Sens-Leafs, Flames-Oilers, a likely return of Caps-Penguins? Those all sound like money makers.
But a problem that has never really gone away for the NHL is that the first round is often the most exciting; part of this is these forced rivalries, but part of it is the chaotic nature of hockey and the abundance of upsets. By the the time the conference finals roll around, there’s a decent chance the best teams will have already been eliminated. When the best teams and the best players are already knocked out, it’s hard to put forward your best product. This year the play-off format is going to eliminate at least one of Pittsburgh or Washington before the conference finals, even though those two teams are huge cash cows for the league. We can argue about fairness all we want, but I’m left to wonder if the NHL’s also missing the mark on its actual objective here.
We’ve talked about pre-game rituals in these parts before, but these discussions are always fun so I figured I'd ask again. We don’t have the hamburgers to unite us all this year, but since I bought a BBQ last summer I’ve been throwing something on the grill before the last few Sens games. It’s a delicious tradition that I plan to continue. So I’ll ask: as we enter the spring months and the Sens are still playing meaningful games, what do you do to get yourself ready?