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What the hell happened?
by Matt Ederer (NHL)
Posted on May 14, 2006, 8:25 AM

An entire country (save for some resentful Toronto Maple Leaf fans) will be waking up today to a period of mourning, following the loss of a team that, in the books of most experts, was a Stanley Cup favourite. The Ottawa Senators have been ousted from the playoffs, in a fashion that was, if the length of the series is any indication, less than a struggle.

In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, it’s like deja vu all over again.

The Ottawa Senators have done it once more. It was a choke of epic proportions this time, as the Sens lost four out of five, including three overtime games, to the #4 seeded Buffalo Sabres (whose captain and leading scorer, incidentally, looks less like an intimidating NHL scorer than the best hockey player in the 7th grade).

Ontario hockey purists will maintain that the Toronto Maple Leafs are the best chokers in hockey, but at this point, they may have some competition. In the last 8 seasons, the Ottawa Senators have made the playoffs 8 times. In those 8 playoff seasons, they’ve lost in the first round five times, lost in the second round twice, and have gone to one final four, losing in game 7 to the eventual cup champion New Jersey Devils.

I doubted it until tonight. I even thought that the Sens had a chance to come back from 3-0. After the season they had, they way they just dominated teams when they wanted to, I felt that the Sens could and would turn it on at will, and though I never formally predicted it to anybody but a few school buddies and my mother, I felt the Sens would pull off the miracle comeback and win it in 7.

But at 2:12 of the first overtime, Jason Pominville (Jason f’ing Pominville) proved the suspicions of every cynical hockey fan correct.

Give full credit to the Buffalo Sabres. They played they type of hockey that wins playoff games: score goals when you’re supposed to, take the body when you’re supposed to, force a turnover when you’re supposed to, kill a penalty when you’re supposed to, don’t screw up when you’re not supposed to. They were much better than the Sens at doing these things, especially that last one. They didn’t outplay the Sens in the series per se, but they outplayed them when it counted, and truly that’s all that matters. So yes, Buffalo deserves a pat on the back, and at this point, should be seriously feared by the five other teams remaining. But Buffalo did not win this series as much as Ottawa lost it. That is a straight up fact.

The analysts of tomorrow will agree that Ottawa lost this series in the first game. Up 5-4 at home with a minute and 32 seconds left, the Sens managed to lose 7-6 in overtime, in a game that was the definition of the expression “gong show hockey”. After that loss, the Sens seemed tentative and nervous in the clutch, especially in the two other overtimes that they lost en route to losing the series to the Sabres in five.

So why did the Sens play this badly? Like anything else in life, pinning the burden on one single factor is both too easy, and wrong. There are many things to consider here. Let’s start with the obvious: Ottawa’s big guns could not, for the life of them, get the safety off. Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson, both of whom scored 103 points in the regular season, played absolutely abysmally – the rumbling out of O-town being that Alfredsson tried to do too much, and Heatley not enough. To put it into perspective, in the five games Ottawa played vs the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, Heatley, Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Martin Havlat combined for 38 points. In the five games vs Buffalo, the four offensive superstars combined for 11. That should tell you all that you need to know about how the offensive superstars of the Senators played.

There’s also the matter of how much of a distraction Dominik Hasek was. Admittedly, this is all wild speculation, but as an unpaid amateur journalist, I reserve the right to wildly speculate as much as I should desire. Here’s what we know. We know Dominik Hasek has a reputation. A reputation for...I don’t want to say being “soft”, but just not playing injured. Or hurt. Or banged up. Or slightly sore. Or if his Captain Crunch cut the roof of his mouth that morning. Dominik has, in his career, sat out with certain injuries and ailments that people within the organization question. Dom is in no way a faker, but he’s not got a history of sucking it up and taking one for the team. We also know that Bryan Murray met with Dominik, asked if he would back up Emery in goal in game five, and Hasek flat out told him no. This could mean one of three things in my opinion. Number 1 is that Hasek was not healthy enough by any stretch of the imagination and the meeting was merely a formality from the Ottawa coach, making certain what he already knew. Number 2 is that Dominik maybe could have gone, but wasn’t quite 100% healthy yet, and he didn’t play because of it – which is a reason that is easy to understand, unless you’re a sports fan (How Dominik, who more than anybody else on this team, was brought in for this very moment could possibly refuse to suit up for game five is beyond me; especially when Canada’s other team features a captain and leader who gets three teeth knocked out by his own teammate and comes back to play four more periods. But again, I’m just speculating).

Number 3 is that Murray asked Hasek to back up Emery, and Hasek refused out of principle. Hey, put yourself in Hasek’s shoes. For the past few months, you’ve been injured, going down while voluntarily supporting your country. Nobody made you go to the Olympics, you did that out of the goodness of your heart. But that damn groin gets you again, and now you’re sitting out. Meanwhile, this joke of backup goalie, the same guy who has tatooes and eats cockroaches and wears suits that could make Don Cherry sit up and go “dude, come on”, he comes in and plays absolutely out of his mind. He sets a record for wins in a month. Right away, the entire city is breathing a sigh of relief, saying “it’s ok guys, we’ve got a backup plan”. Uh, excuse me, backup plan? Fuck that. How many Hart trophies does Ray Emery have? I bet it’s a number significantly less than two. What about Vezinas, does Ray Emery need two hands to supply enough fingers to count the Vezina trophies on the mantle? What about his Olympic gold medal? Oh that’s right, he’s got no Olympic gold medal. But it’s ok, I’ll just dress and sit here on the bench with my Stanley Cup Ring wearing-thumb up my ass, while someone who couldn’t hold my jockstrap plays the games that I was brought in to play. Maybe Dominik Hasek felt that way. Can you blame him?

Of course you can. And I do. Never, and I repeat, never do you bring your personal gripes and grudges into a situation where they can adversely effect others, be it the workplace, a social gala event, on the ice, whatever. I’m 18 years old and I know that. You’re meaning to tell me that Ryan Smyth’s teeth can die for our sins, Steve Yzerman, at 42 years old, can be the best player on the ice with an injured back, countless NHLers can have countless shiners and countless stiches, but Dominik Hasek can’t sit on a bench? I don’t buy it. But I’ll take this opportunity to again remind everybody that all of the preceding was just speculation. It is sort of vindicating to know that on TSN’s The Reporters, Damien Cox of the Toronto Star has just said essentially everything I did, minus the crazy rant.

Other factors need to be considered as well. Zdeno Chara pulled off a David Blaine-esque act of magic by making a 6 foot 9 inch Slovakian disappear. Bryan Murray put the brakes on the offensive runaway train he was conducting for the first time all year. Wade Redden played well, but didn’t score the way that he’s expected to. The only people you can let off the hook for this one are the Sens’ role players, like Chris Neil and Bryan Smolinski, and Ray Emery, who aside from the first game, played as well as an unproven, untested, cockroach-eating rookie should ever be expected to.

But the question remains. Where do we go from here? For fans of Canadian Hockey in general, well, we’ve got the hard working, hard hitting, hard nosed Alberta boys who play HACKEY, the way nature and Don Cherry intended it. Again, I feel like we’ve gone back in time, now to 2003 when the Calgary Flames were the Great White North’s last hope to reclaim the trophy that has alluded us since Montreal won the big mug in 1993.

For fans of the Senators, your team may be in for a period of dismantling not seen in Canada since the Toronto Blue Jays won the series in 1993. Zdeno Chara, Dominik Hasek, Wade Redden and Vaclav Varada are all unrestricted free agents next summer, while Tyler Arnason, Ray Emery, Martin Havlat, Chris Kelly, Brian McGratton, Chris Neil, Peter Schaefer and Christoph Schubert are all among the restricted free agents that the Sens have to try to resign. Conventional wisdom states that the Sens are only going to be able to keep one of their big two defensive free agents, and you’d think that, especially after the playoff run that just passed, Redden is higher on the priority list than Zdeno. God only knows if Dominik Hasek will be back, though in my opinion, Emery played well enough to justify getting the starting position next year, with a possible veteran backup being added (Ed Belfour?). And can the Sens really expect to sign all of those big restricted names and stay comfortably under the cap? We might be seeing some sign-and-trades this summer out of the Nation’s Capital.

But regardless of what the summer will bring, the Ottawa Senators are, for the eighth season in a row, doing their best to disprove Stompin’ Tom’s theory that hockey is “the best game you can name” by leaving early to go play golf. And it’s rather ironic; in 1882, the city of Ottawa adopted the motto “advance” to act as a simple motivation toward the betterment of the city. Who could have predicted that some 100 years later, the knock on the city would be it’s failure to do so.

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