You think this is a tough town in which to be a political leader – try goaltending.
There are some who call Ottawa a “goalie’s graveyard,” others who will say that’s a bit harsh, but it can be fairly said that, given the choice between the two easiest positions to blame in any given hockey struggle – coaches and goaltenders – Ottawans are far more likely to point in the direction of the big pads and inscrutable mask.
In part this is because the measures of goaltending are so simple to understand: the puck goes in; the puck stays out.
In a hockey-mad town, that means added pressure. No wonder Original Six goaltender Lorne (Gump) Worsley once said: “The only worse job is javelin catcher at a track-and-field meet.”
Ottawa Senators fans have had two goaltending experiences they were good with, though one ended badly.
First, was in 2006, when the Senators were likely the best team in hockey until goaltender Dominik Hasek went down with a groin pull in the Turin Winter Olympics. Second, was last year, when, in a shortened season with no interplay with the powerful Western Conference, Craig Anderson had a career year – or half-year, if you prefer – and helped the “Pesky Sens” advance farther into the playoffs (second round) than any other Canadian team.
This season, with Anderson struggling, the Sens will have to see a quick shift in fortune if they are even to make the playoffs. Anderson, of course, is held to blame perhaps more than deserved, while backup Robin Lehner, in goal Monday, as the Senators played host to the powerful St. Louis Blues is held to be the solution.
And Monday, he indeed seemed to be, as the Senators came back to win 3-2 in overtime, the winning goal coming poetically off the stick of 19-year-old Cody Ceci, an emergency call up from the minor-league affiliate.
The crowd of 16,008 went crazy – not just for the relief of a win but because Ceci is a local hockey product.
Lehner was also the hero, having kept the Senators in the game to reach overtime.
Goaltenders such as Ron Tugnutt, Damian Rhodes, Patrick Lalime, Ray Emery, etc. were all held to come up short in Ottawa, only to go on to play well elsewhere in lead and backup roles (Emery even winning a Stanley Cup this spring with Chicago Blackhawks).
To get Anderson in early 2011, Ottawa dispatched yet another goaltender fans had given up on, Brian Elliott, to the Colorado Avalanche, where he did not impress. However, signed as a free agent by the Blues, he had found himself to the point where he came into Ottawa boasting an impressive 6-1-1 record and a .913 save percentage. Lehner, on the other hand, came into the game with an admirable .930 save percentage but a lowly 4-7-3 record.
To keep Anderson – the goalie Ottawa fans are now saying should have been dealt last spring – the Senators dispatched big Ben Bishop to Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for rookie forward Cory Conacher.
Conacher has been a major disappointment, scoring but twice in 34 games so far, while Bishop is a sensation: standing third in the league with a 1.97 GAA.
Though Lehner was adamant Monday he was “the backup” and “it’s not my time yet,” head coach Paul MacLean decided it was indeed time.
Lehner was sharp enough in the opening period that the Senators did not, as per usual this year, give up the first goal or two – a flaw that, naturally, has placed even more spotlight on Ottawa goaltending.
Instead, the Senators scored first, when defenceman Erik Karlsson broke in for a tip shot Elliott blocked, but Karlsson was able to grab his own rebound, get the puck in to Bobby Ryan back of the net, and Ryan hit Jean-Gabriel Pageau in the slot with a quick pass Pageau buried.
Having solved their first-period problem, the Senators now have to work on holding a lead. Despite Lehner making several excellent saves – including a breathtaking stacked-pad save on a corner chance by Alex Steen – he could not hold the Blues off forever.
Chris Stewart made it 1-1 late in the period, when he was sent in by Derek Roy on a clear break and slipped the puck through Lehner’s legs.
Then, with only 13 seconds remaining, Stewart scored his ninth of a year, when Roy sent a no-look pass back from behind Lehner’s net and Stewart chipped the puck to the low stick side.
Roy, St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock said before the match, “is back playing the way he did in Buffalo.”
This was hardly welcome news in Ottawa. When he was with the Sabres, Roy, a local product, was lethal when up against his old hometown.
While Lehner let in the Stewart shot, he was hardly helped by his defence standing around staring in wonderment, as has consistently happened to both Anderson and Lehner in games this season.
Six minutes into the third period, Ryan tied the game 2-2, when he danced around Elliott and deposited the puck neatly in the back of the St. Louis net for his 16th goal of the season.
Ceci settled manners with his long, floating shot from the point as overtime wound down.
“It’s not my time yet,” Lehner had said. But perhaps now it is.
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