On paper, the Senators aren’t overly impressive. Especially given the new defensive style they play under new coach Guy Boucher. They entered last night’s contest with just 49 goals scored despite talented players Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, Bobby Ryan and newcomer Derick Brassard. Only captain Erik Karlsson and top pivot Kyle Turris have scored consistently.
With Boucher emphasizing team defense, the run and gun days of the Sens are over. They no longer play an exciting style. But rather a similar one to the old Devils and the Tortorella Rangers. They sit back in the neutral zone and pounce on mistakes. Then use their superior speed to take advantage. That style was very effective in blanking the Rangers 2-0 at MSG on Sunday. The Rangers have suddenly gone 0-3-1 in their last four at home.
Scoring isn’t coming as easy. Especially without Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. The Sens handed them four power plays with some bad penalties. It didn’t matter. The once very good power play no longer is. Minus the big right-handed shot of Zibanejad on the off which must be accounted for, they’ve become sadly predictable. With the exception of one man-advantage, they fired blanks or didn’t shoot at all.
Part of the problem is they now have only one righty shot in set up man Derek Stepan. Let’s face it. For a guy who makes $6.5 million, he is very predictable. Refusing to shoot, the top center is too unselfish and forces passes. Against a well schooled defensive unit, that won’t work. Would it kill Stepan to at least look shot occasionally just to keep opposing penalty kill units honest?
With Alain Vigneault refusing to play Adam Clendening, there is no other viable righty shot on the power play. It feels like ages ago when Clendening got off to a good start contributing two assists in five games while moving the puck effectively out of the zone because he can skate. Something Kevin Klein can longer do. I don’t count the sixth game Clendening was inserted in because Vigneault didn’t give him a shift.
As for Klein, his issues are becoming a normality. For as much as people killed Dan Girardi and at times Marc Staal last year, that’s how badly Klein is struggling. Let’s first give credit to him for being a good Ranger. He’s been a stand up guy who over performed in Vigneault’s system- putting up identical 9-17-26 seasons in the last two with a combined plus-40. The 31-year old has been a good performer here since being acquired from Nashville for Michael Del Zotto. He is a solid penalty killer who is willing to get dirty blocking shots when called upon.
It’s just that this year, it’s gone badly for him. Against faster and more skilled opponents, Klein’s lack of foot speed has been an issue. He’s looked slower this year. That includes teeing up shots. Something he used to do better and get through. On one occasion yesterday, he took way too long and it was blocked. Where he’s really been hurt is defensively. He’s been victimized much more than I can remember.
Take Ottawa’s first goal scored by Jean-Gabriel Pageau 1:54 into the second period of a scoreless game. On the play which was started behind the net by Zach Smith, Brady Skjei was helping down low to take Smith. Instead of staying with Pageau in front, Klein went down allowing Tom Pyatt to center for a wide open Pageau for a lay-up past Antti Raanta. All Klein had to do was stay on his feet and take Pageau. He didn’t and it resulted in a goal against that was preventable.
The Rangers are the least penalized team in the league. They didn’t take a single penalty against the Flyers on Friday. Staal got nabbed for high-sticking with over five minutes remaining in the second. It wasn’t even his fault as Hoffman lifted his stick into teammate Chris Wideman. Funny how that gets called while more blatant stuff doesn’t. Ottawa took advantage when Stone finished off a Hoffman feed for a two-goal lead with 3:49 left.
The second one was an accident. Ref Frederick L’Ecuyer accidentally got in the way of a Nick Holden clear attempt. The unfortunate incident allowed the Sens to regain control of the puck in the zone. Hoffman picked it up and drew Klein, who forgot about the dangerous Stone who was left by his lonesome to use his quick hands to beat Raanta for his sixth. This one never should’ve happened. L’Ecuyer got hit by Holden’s clear which changed the play. But Klein still was in the wrong spot.
Basically, that’s how it’s gone for him. He just hasn’t been the same player since that injury last Spring. The thing is it was his hand. His skating hasn’t been as fluid. A once dependable top four defenseman who Vigneault sometimes moved up to the top pair to play with Ryan McDonagh has suddenly become the weakest link. At this point, it wouldn’t hurt for Vigneault to have Klein sit a game out and watch from the press box. Sometimes, that can help. But the coach’s stubborn approach and loyalty will probably mean he continues to give Klein as many chances as Girardi got last year.
Where does that leave Clendening? Wasting away just as Dylan McIlrath did after a effective rookie year. Remember. This is the player the organization chose over McIlrath. He’s the same age and he’s just sitting out game after game. Have you seen the power play lately? Their latest 0-for makes them 1 for their last 13. It’s not a coincidence with both Zibanejad and Buchnevich out.
When you have pass first guys like Stepan and Mats Zuccarello, who also has cooled considerably since his good start, it doesn’t leave many options. Chris Kreider also hasn’t been as consistent since his neck spasms which is worrisome. Vigneault had way too many lefty shots on the man-advantage. Ottawa did a good job taking away the shooting lanes. Something Stepan alluded to in the post game.
Aside from a good first in which they peppered Anderson with 13 shots forcing him to make several great saves including a mind boggling pad stop on Brandon Pirri point blank, they were outplayed and out-executed. You could also hint to being out-coached. Boucher’s patient defensive style took away the Rangers’ transition causing turnovers. They totaled 20 shots including an unlucky 13 in the third. But Anderson was able to see most. Credit his defense who were committed fully. Even the loathsome Dion Phaneuf, who mixed it up with Jimmy Vesey.
One thing I didn’t get were Vigneault’s lines. Jesper Fast is a nice two-way player who hustles every shift. But the notion that he’s a top six player with a couple of our guys out is ludicrous. What was he doing with Stepan and Kreider? And why was Vesey on the fourth line? Vigneault did try some different combos in the third when behind. But if he wanted to get back in it, he should’ve loaded up going Stepan, Kreider and Rick Nash. I also would’ve reunited J.T. Miller with Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner. Pirri could’ve centered Vesey and Zuccarello which would’ve left Josh Jooris with Fast and Matt Puempel.
Sometimes, Vigneault’s in game adjustments leave something to be desired. The Rangers continued to play into Ottawa’s hands by carrying the puck and forcing passes that weren’t there. The did try some dump and chase in the third. But Ottawa’s D was back quickly with the very fast and supremely skilled Karlsson leading the transition. He really is an amazing skater.Marc Methot, Cody Ceci and even Mark Borowiecki had solid nights as did Phaneuf.
In truth, there’s a reason the Senators are now up to 14-7-1 with 29 points putting them second behind the Canadiens. They are executing Boucher’s system which has hindered the scoring of Brassard, who still got a warm reception from MSG during a stoppage. Even though some of their key guys aren’t scoring as frequently, they are still adjusting. I’m in agreement with Joe Micheletti, who said eventually, the scoring will increase. If it does, then Ottawa could be one of the bigger surprises.
Considering that their win came on a historic night where the Ottawa Redblacks won their first Grey Cup in 50 years, things are looking up in Ottawa.
As for the Rangers, there definitely are some issues that need correcting. They’re going to find themselves in more of these tight checking games next Spring. They have yet to figure out a way to win them. They can’t become too predictable. If they do, it’s either Pittsburgh or Washington waiting for them. Hell. Even Columbus can’t be discounted.
A final thought. We learned that the Panthers suddenly fired coach Gerard Gallant. TSN’s Nick Kypreos broke the story on Twitter during the third period. It’s absolutely astonishing that the Panthers fired Gallant, who led them to a division title in ’15-16 and was up for the Jack Adams. They haven’t been totally healthy with top center Jonathan Huberdeau still out. Nick Bjugstad just returned.
Florida made some changes in the off-season bringing in Keith Yandle and Jason Demers. The idea that Gallant was doing a bad job with a team that hasn’t been totally healthy is absurd. Jaromir Jagr hasn’t scored much. Neither has talented Aleksander Barkov. Outside of Jonathan Marchessault (10-7-17), their top players haven’t scored as much. Reilly Smith’s scoring is down. It is true they blew a 2-0 lead in a 3-2 loss to Carolina. But they were still 11-10-1 with 22 points which is hardly bad considering the injuries.
If it really is true that they left Gallant to get a taxi back to the hotel, that is cruel. He and one of his assistant coaches were let go in excruciating fashion. Think what the Mets did to Willie Randolph in San Diego. Eerily similar. Most surprising is new GM Tom Rowe will take over behind the bench. He used to coach the AHL farm team and has experience coaching Lokomotiv of the KHL. He moved upstairs to be an associate GM before taking over for Dale Tallon.
The odd way this occurred hasn’t sat well with NHL insiders. Not has it with people close to the situation. Obviously, it’s disappointing. This story will be interesting to follow.