OTTAWA – Pittsburgh stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have combined for 10 points in two games. Ottawa stars Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley have totalled one.
If one is to simplify the disparity in play in the Penguins-Senators Eastern Conference quarter-final series through two games, that’s a good place to start.
Ottawa head coach Bryan Murray obviously agrees.
“I think you see Crosby got points, Malkin got points in two games,” Murray said Saturday after his team’s optional practice. “Good players that get the ice time and get the opportunity are the people that you count on and that’s the way you build teams in this league.
“I don’t think there’s one team that could go and win a series if their best players don’t contribute a great deal.”
Spezza, to be fair, is playing hurt now after jamming his leg during Game 2 on Friday. He says he’ll play Monday in Game 3. Even before getting banged up, however, he and Heatley were both quiet. Maybe it’s because they rarely had the puck. The Penguins’ puck possession has been one-sided so far in this series.
“Not getting the puck in the right spots is a big part of it,” Murray said. “Dany Heatley’s a shooter. We know that. When you’re a goal-scorer, you need help getting the puck in spots where you get a chance to shoot the puck. I think he had one real good chance (Friday) night only, if I remember correctly. So it’s a combination of him, and somebody helping him get the puck in the right spot.”
Rarely during their years in Ottawa have Spezza and Heatley been split up. They’ve formed the nucleus of Ottawa’s top forward line since the lockout and have piled up the points in impressive fashion. When they do get split up, it’s a sign of things gone wrong. And it’s happened in their last two playoff series going back to last June’s five-game loss in the Stanley Cup final to the Anaheim Ducks and already here early on in the first round against Pittsburgh. Murray broke them up at the beginning of the third period in Friday night’s 5-3 loss.
In their last seven playoff games, Spezza and Heatley have combined for one goal – period. Ottawa’s record during that span is 1-6.
Hockey is a team sport so it’s unfair to lump all the blame solely on Spezza and Heatley. There’s plenty to go around on an Ottawa team that’s being beat to nearly every loose puck. That being said, Spezza and Heatley have the extra responsibility of carrying most of the offence. They have the monster contract extensions kicking in next season that say they have that responsibility.
And to be sure, no one is harder on them than themselves. They desperately want to snap out of it and help turn around this series. It would be foolish to suggest they’re not trying hard enough or that they don’t care enough. They do.
“I think we just have to find a way to win hockey games,” Spezza said Saturday when asked about whether he and Heatley felt the pressure of producing as much as Crosby and Malkin. “It doesn’t matter if it’s me and Heater scoring goals or other guys scoring. Obviously we need to be scoring goals for us to win games, but I don’t know if it puts any additional pressure on us, though.”
Neither Spezza nor Heatley skated Saturday as most of the veterans took the day off. They’ll be back on the ice for a full practice Sunday.
Right now, the Senators are playing like a team that’s looking at the dressing room door waiting for their captain to walk in with his hockey bag over his shoulder and say, “Ok boys, I’m back.” Daniel Alfredsson is so clearly important to this team on and off the ice it’s alarming how the level of play falls off when he’s not playing.
Will he come back in this series? There’s a feeling that just won’t go away that he will. But Murray has steadfastly denied it, saying Alfredsson is a ways off. Perhaps Murray wants to shield his own players from awaiting Alfredsson’s return. “Stop looking at the dressing room door,” Murray might be thinking of telling his players.
Perhaps the most telling sign of how things are going for the Senators right now is that their most pressing concern heading into the playoffs, goaltending, has been their strength. Martin Gerber has been Ottawa’s best player through two games of the playoffs, his 49-save performance in Game 2 viewed by those who have been around the Senators since Day 1 as one of the finest goaltending efforts in franchise history.
It still wasn’t enough. What happens when he’s human again? Now there’s a scary thought for the Sens.
Things look bleak for the Senators. But they’re back home, and a win in Game 3 can go a long way towards restoring their confidence. Especially if their top two players score.
With files from Chris Yzerman