“One of the perks of the off-season is that folks are so starved for hockey content that they’ll read just about anything,” is exactly what I told myself when I decided to devote an entire column to re-living my favourite inconsequential Ottawa Senators goal of all-time: Ales Hemsky single-handedly embarrassing the Tampa Bay Lightning. For those of you that may have forgotten, or for those of you that like me just simply can’t get enough of its majesty, here it is in all of its glory:
I’ve re-watched this clip maybe 100 times? That might even be a conservative estimate.
As I’ve gotten older, some aspects of my fandom have changed. While I still very much want the Sens to win the Stanley Cup, I’ve come to realize that prioritizing the team winning above all else was just bound to make me miserable. For one thing, only one out of (for now) 31 teams takes home the grand prize every year. If every outcome other than a championship is a failure, then what am I doing with all this time? I’ve given this team thousands of hours of my life, and if it was only to hope for a 1/31 chance each year then I should re-think some things. And for another thing, I’d be throwing away so many great moments if I only valued them so far as they contributed to winning. This goal meant nothing in the grand scheme of things, the Sens were basically sunk in the play-off race already, but it’s probably still the single greatest individual effort I’ve ever seen on an Ottawa goal (for my money, this Jason Spezza OT winner and Bobby Ryan walking the LA Kings are the two other obvious contenders but I welcome your preferred choices in the comments!)
Hemsky only played twenty games in Ottawa and the team only won 10 of those games, meaning that many consider his time in the nation’s capital a failure. 2013-14 was supposed to be the year to build on the surprise success of 2012-13, and the trade for Hemsky was going to shore up the top line that had up until that point featured Milan Michalek and a rotating cast of right wingers alongside Spezza. None of the team success went as planned, so it’s often forgotten just how good that Michalek - Spezza - Hemsky line was in their limited time together. In the twenty games in which he suited up for the Sens, Hemsky scored 17 points and the Sens’ first line was an absolute juggernaut. Look at this offensive threat chart, courtesy of hockeyviz.com:
That is patently absurd. I challenge you to find a more impressive individual chart with a minimum of twenty games played.
Spezza had his greatest success with Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatey of course, but his chemistry with Hemsky was instant. Their skill-sets were perfectly complementary and as a result the Sens would control the puck like the good old days when that trio hit the ice. In fact, the two worked so well together that Hemsky followed Spezza to Dallas as a UFA in the 2014 off-season. But enough waxing poetic, back to the goal itself. Here it is one last time because I frankly think everyone should watch it as many times as possible:
I’ve studied this clip with the obsession of a conspiracy-theorist poring over the Zapruder film, so I’ll share a few of my personal highlights:
- Dean Brown, doing the play-by-play alongside Denis Potvin on colour duties, delivers a near perfect call of the live action; his voice rises as Hemsky slips past Radko Gudas with the between-the-legs move and he doesn’t miss a bit with the “Doctor give me the needle!” capper. A+ work from Dean.
- The way the crowd reacts first to Hemsky walking Gudas and then to him finishing the play still gives me shivers. There’s something special about a shared understanding of something incredible unfolding before your eyes and sharing in that with twenty thousand or so of your fellow fans. If you re-watch from the start of the clip, you can see a number of the fans in the bottom left hand corner jump to their feet after Hemsky makes his move around the defenseman but before he’s scored the goal. They can tell something special is happening. The second roar of the crowd, absolutely deafening for a meaningless March game tells you everything you need to know about the quality of the skill on display.
- It’s always fun when NHLers get excited about goals instead of just “playing it cool.” Watch for Spezza’s reaction when he greets Hemsky in the huddle after the goal. He mouths “wow” twice — yes, it was that impressive!
- Hemsky’s deke of Ben Bishop to complete the tally is impressive, but it’s clearly the effort to get around Gudas that makes the goal special. Maybe my favourite part of how the whole video is the close-up perspective on the second replay that really allows you to see how Hemsky pulls the move off. As he crosses the blue line, Hemsky is sizing Gudas up and when Gudas leans forward (way too soon) to initiate a pokecheck, Hemsky holds the puck out to his side just close enough to tempt the Lightning defender. Gudas happily obliges with a lunge that Hemsky was waiting for and he slides the puck right on through to the other side. It’s a testament to how many times Hemsky must have practiced a similar move because that’s all reflexes and muscle memory. He sees the defender lean a bit too much, he lays the trap, and then walks right on by. Gudas never comes close to the puck, and because he’s leaning so far forward he doesn’t have a hope in hell of recovering before Hemsky’s on top of Bishop. It’s the type of play that separates not just the pros from the regular joes, but the good pros from the every day NHLer. Simply sublime.
As you can probably tell, over 1k words later, this goal has stuck with me and is something from which I derive a great deal of pleasure. It’s a nothing goal in the grand scheme of Sens’ history but that’s almost part of the appeal in a way: it’s a reminder that we can have fun, and that incredible things can happen, even when the stakes are low. As the team isn’t likely to be much good for another year or two, that’s something I try to remind myself of; there’s still lots of these fun moments to be had.