Kovacevic: Do Senators have anything left?
OTTAWA — The Penguins arrived in Canada's capital Saturday with a clear purpose and a clearer plan: End this Stanley Cup playoff series with the Senators as quickly as possible, and do so with more of what succeeded in the first couple of games:
1. Superb special teams
2. Star-power scoring
3. Solid if unspectacular defense and goaltending
If anything, that last one actually could use an upgrade, given the late fade in the 4-3 Game 2 victory Friday.
“I think we've done a pretty good job for the most part, but there are a few little things we'd like to correct,” Sidney Crosby told reporters after an optional practice at Scotiabank Place. “You want to be more sound defensively, but you don't want to sit back. You want to spend most of your time in the attacking zone.”
Sounds about right.
Sounds eminently doable, too.
If Tomas Vokoun's primary shortfall is pucks bouncing around at his feet, he'll cope just fine. He still has conceded only four goals on 58 shots — a .931 save percentage — and he's still the no-brainer choice to stay in net. Spare me, please, any premature calls for Marc-Andre Fleury. When it's his time, we'll all know.
The defense wobbled a bit, too, but subbing Mark Eaton for Deryk Engelland would go a good length toward addressing that.
There are answers.
For the Senators, not so much.
You know, when the Penguins annihilated the Islanders, 5-0, in Game 1, the following appeared in this space: “These Islanders won't run and hide. Anyone who thinks they will wasn't paying attention in the regular season to the NHL's seventh-highest scoring team. They're fast, tough and resilient.”
The Senators have shown their own resiliency, but there's a reason I haven't written anything in that vein in this series: I just don't see another gear for this Ottawa team at this time against this opponent.
The big news here Saturday was that Jason Spezza, the Senators' top offensive threat when healthy, declared himself “ready” to return for Game 3 after a four-month absence due to back surgery. It'll feel even bigger, no doubt, when he's introduced to the Scotiabank Place crowd after a couple of rousing anthems from that magnificent singing Mountie, Lyndon Slewidge.
But Spezza resumed skating with the team just last week, and his only meaningful contact since his herniated disk was addressed Jan. 27 has been a few days of sparring with the healthy scratches.
And from that he's going to parachute right into a must-win playoff setting?
And withstand an opponent that's going to show him about as much sympathy as Chris Neil did when punching Crosby in the jaw protector in Game 1?
Erik Karlsson, the Senators' star on defense, isn't in much better shape. Never mind the ego-bruising — or is that “upper-body injury?” — administered by Crosby with that see-ya move in Game 2. What had to sting the Norris Trophy winner all the more was that Paul MacLean not only limited his ice time to a Joe Vitale-like nine minutes but also admonished him as “not one of our better players.”
In fairness, Karlsson isn't anywhere near recovered from that famously severed Achilles tendon, and it shows. But that doesn't alter reality: This guy can't step up his game because he doesn't have a step to add.
Milan Michalek was a 35-goal scorer just last season, but Lyndon's fellow Mounties are still searching his whereabouts in this series.
Daniel Alfredsson has given it all he's got, but it's not as easy to see what that is anymore at age 40.
Ditto Sergei Gonchar at age 80.
Really, the one player on the Ottawa side with the most realistic room for improvement is Craig Anderson, who, for reasons only he can know, looks utterly spooked by the Penguins. This series hasn't been an exception, with seven goals in 81 minutes and an ignominious yanking in Game 2.
Anderson's a bit of a brash sort, and he's trying to shrug it off by saying stuff like, “You're going to face adversity,” but when the coach feels compelled to announce that his goaltender with a .950 regular-season save percentage will indeed start the next playoff game — as MacLean did Saturday — something's out of whack.
And, before long, out of the playoffs.