The experts worried the shootout might still be going well into March.
The afternoon Presidents’ Day match between the Ottawa Senators and the New Jersey Devils had been a game of bobbled pucks, whiffed shots, goal posts, near misses and give-your-head-a-shake plays.
The Senators had gone a stunning 137 minutes 17 seconds without scoring a goal, their offence fizzled to a damp, cold wick since Matt Cooke’s skate had sliced into the Achilles tendon of Erik Karlsson.
That injury, suffered in Wednesday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, had seemingly exposed the Achilles heel of the entire Ottawa team: an inability to score without their young Norris Trophy-winning defenceman and their playmaking centre Jason Spezza, also lost for the season after undergoing back surgery.
With Spezza in the lineup, the Senators had averaged 3.3 goals a game and were doing just fine. Without Spezza, that fell to 2.1 goals a game, usually courtesy of Karlsson’s inventive work. Without Karlsson, it hit 0.0 in a shutout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday night and seemed a good bet to remain there against the New Jersey Devils on Monday.
The Devils, after all, had scored on their first chance of the game, Stephen Gionta burying a rebound only 1:19 in.
But hell finally froze over 8:12 into the third period when 40-year-old Daniel Alfredsson – who had muffed a similar chance earlier – put a backhand shot behind 40-year-old Martin Brodeur.
Not surprisingly, the game went to shootout when neither team could find a second goal in regular time or overtime. Alfredsson hit yet another post, but Ottawa’s Swedish rookie, Jakob Silfverberg, got a shot past Brodeur, giving Ottawa a welcome 2-1 victory in this annus horribilis of an injury-plagued season.
With the win comes two points, maintaining the team’s slim hold on a possible playoff spot, at the same time complicating the debate that is consuming those Ottawa voices not screaming with outrage over the expenses of certain senators.
With eight players injured – some $22.6-million (U.S.) in salaries tied up in bandages – Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray has had his own thoughts to entertain, not to mention the opinions of every person, some of them sober, able to push the buttons that will get them onto the sports talk shows.
Murray has one marvellous card to play, though it is uncertain if, or how, he might play that card. For all Ottawa’s troubles on the ice, they are blessed in the crease. Starter Craig Anderson, NHL player of the month in January, is arguably the best goaltender in the NHL now. The best goalie in the AHL, without argument, is young Robin Lehner of the Binghamton Senators.
On Monday, head coach Paul MacLean – with a home game scheduled for Tuesday against the New York Islanders – elected to play back-up Ben Bishop instead of Anderson. Bishop was often spectacular in winning his first game of the year.
Anderson is 31, Bishop 26, Lehner 21. Murray could, theoretically, find a buyer for Bishop, who also played well in a 1-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, and might be able to get in return an offensive top-six forward to sort-of replace Spezza, or a playmaking defenceman to sort-of replace Karlsson. There would, however, be no total replacement and, perhaps, what would be the point?
Murray could easily find a Stanley Cup contender eager to take on Anderson in return for prospects or future draft choices, which would be attractive. But Anderson has two years left on his contract and, just maybe, he’s exactly who the Senators would want back there once Karlsson and Spezza return and next season is a new start.
Though it is not in the nature of Murray or MacLean to do so, there has also been free advice offered that the team might embrace its scoring spiral – “When you’re cold, you’re cold,” centre Zack Smith conceded in a between-period interview – and trust in the lottery giving them a pick of major potential in what is going to be a good draft year.
If the Senators were going to shrug and let it all slip away, then other choices might come into play, including the Ottawa sacrilege of dispatching Alfredsson off to see if he might lift the Stanley Cup before he raises the issue of retirement.
Hockey has a long history of such arrangements – Boston Bruins captain Raymond Bourque to the Colorado Avalanche in 2000 – and no one doubts that Alfredsson’s long-term future lies in Ottawa, where he expects to remain with his family.
“He was very good,” MacLean said of his captain following the New Jersey win. He was more than good. And if the Senators are going to shake free of their stunningly bad power play – 0-for-25 since Karlsson went down – it will be with Alfredsson doing the marshalling.
Murray’s easiest choice is merely to stay the course.
Last year, when the Senators slipped into the playoffs, it was a surprise. The rebuilding plan was intended to take three years, at least.
Next year will be Year 3.
And with a healthy Karlsson and Spezza back, this shrunken season would be quickly, and appropriately, forgotten.