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January 17, 2019
Big Three Back Together
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
It should be a good trade for both teams. The Canes get younger up front and add a mobile defender to the blue line, while the Sens acquire another physical defender in Commodore and some much needed scoring depth in Stillman. More importantly, both are Stanley Cup champions, strengthening Ottawa for what should be a lengthy playoff run.
It wasn't surprising Ottawa made a move. After dominating the early part of the season, the Senators have scuffled of late, going 3-8-0 between January 13 and February 5. During that same stretch, the Montreal Canadiens went 7-2-1, pulling to within three points of Ottawa for the top spot in the Northeast Division. The Sens have since stemmed the tide with two consecutive wins, including a decisive 6-1 destruction of the Habs this past Saturday to increase the division lead to five points. But the winds of change were a-blowin'.
"This time of year is always a tricky time of year to make sure everybody stays focused on just winning games because there's a lot of trades -- especially when you play in a Canadian city," said Jason Spezza in a media conference call just hours before the Stillman trade. "There's trade rumors every day and guys feel˙-- especially when you're losing games, everybody kind of lives and dies by wins and losses. If you lose a few games then sometimes guys' names get mentioned in trade rumors. As a player, it's a tough time of the year to make sure you stay focused."
Spezza's focus certainly hasn't faltered. He blistered Montreal over the weekend for a career-high six points on three goals and three assists. It was his way of welcoming linemates Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley back to the lineup. The trio hadn't skated together since Heatley went on the shelf with a shoulder injury January 12, which just happened to coincide with the team's recent swoon. When Heatley finally returned February 7, Alfredsson was on the shelf with a hip injury. Against the Habs, they hardly missed a beat, with Alfredsson adding five points and Heatley contributing four of his own in the one-sided affair.
"Yeah, we had pretty good chemistry together, and we practiced the day before and practiced that morning together," said Spezza. "You know, it's a pretty natural fit for us. We've played together now for a couple years, so there's not too much getting used to each other again. You put us in with same linemates, we read off each other pretty good. I think more than anything I was fired up because it was a big game, Alfie was fired up because he was coming back, and Heater was pretty excited because he just came back the night before, so it was pretty good circumstances for us to play well."
While Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin appear poised to wage a memorable scoring race, don't underestimate Ottawa's talented triumvirate. If not for injuries, they'd be holding down the top three spots in the hunt for the Art Ross. Alfredsson leads the NHL with a 1.49 points-per-game average, followed by Spezza at 1.42 and Heatley at 1.40. Sidney Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg are tied for fourth at 1.37.
"Our biggest thing is we always talk about skating," explained Spezza. "We try to make sure we're skating real well, and we're hounding the puck, and we're moving as much as we can, because we feel like when we do that as a trio, that makes us real tough to stop when we're coming at guys and making them make decisions fast. That's kind of the foundation of our game, I guess, when we play together."
Despite the lengthy time apart, Spezza never had any concerns the trio would lose its magic touch.
"We know each other's games so well," said the crafty center. "We have a few things that we do quite regularly to help us kind of stay in sync, and all three of us communicate real well. Alfie jumps around and plays a different game -- he plays with Fisher sometimes -- but me and Heater, there's always constant dialogue; we're always talking about different things to try."
Adding Stillman to the mix should take some pressure off the Big Three. Stillman, who has won Cups with Tampa Bay and Carolina, has 21 goals and 46 points this season in 55 games with the Hurricanes. That production would rank him fourth on the Senators in goals, assists, and points. Mike Fisher is next with 19 goals and 42 points. After that, things get bleak in a hurry, with Antoine Vermette (32 points), Chris Kelly (22 points), and Randy Robitaille (21 points) rounding out the forward ranks. Corvo's six goals and 27 points actually ranked him seventh on the team, so his production from the back line will be missed. But the Senators remain confident in their secondary scoring.
"We feel that we have good depth scoring, our depth guys score when they have to score, and most nights it's just expected for us to lead the team offensively," said Spezza. "We feel like if the other guys can play even or plus-1 or better against the other three lines that we should win most games. We don't feel like it's a problem for us."
Spezza, Heatley, and Alfredsson have no problems playing at a plus or even. The Big Three is a combined plus-84 on the season, with Heatley leading the way at plus-36. But as great as they are, they can't play goal.
Ottawa's Achilles' heel is in net. Martin Gerber is maddeningly inconsistent, and Ray Emery is simply maddening. Emery's poor practice habits, questionable attitude, and inability to set an alarm clock have plagued the team all season, causing public squabbles with the coaching staff and uncertain chemistry in the dressing room.
On the bright side, Emery was in net for Ottawa's last two victories, and he was particularly sharp in the big win over Montreal, stopping 33 of 34 shots. It marked only the sixth time in his 18 full starts that Emery notched a save percentage equal to or higher than the .918 percentage he posted last season.
"I think Ray has had a couple or three good weeks of practice," said Spezza. "You can see his game coming along. It's not one of those things where you can just decide you're going to start playing better and you're going to play better. I think it took him a few weeks of work and getting back to good habits.
"I think hopefully Saturday's game can become a turning-point game for him, and really just a confidence game, because he looked real confident. I think by us getting a few early goals, it gave him a chance to settle down, and he looked like he was moving really well. So we definitely welcome him playing the way he did."
Emery's return to form couldn't come at a better time. Gerber has been strugg-a-ling. The native of Burgdorf, Switzerland, was incredible in October, going 7-1-0 with a 1.99 goals-against average and a dazzling .940 save percentage. But it's been a crapshoot ever since, with Gerber fluctuating between bad and terrible. In January, he got riddled for a 3.23 goals-against and stopped shots at a paltry .881 clip. His lone February start didn't go any better, as he gave up four goals on 26 shots in a loss at Montreal.
"We feel when those two guys are playing well, we're in a pretty good spot because we've got two capable No. 1 guys," said Spezza, whistling through the graveyard. "I think when the team struggled a little bit, the goaltenders struggled a bit, and that's going to happen at different times of the year. But we've gone to the Finals with those two guys. And we know if Ray struggles or gets hurt, Marty can come in; and if Marty struggles or gets hurt, then Ray can come in. We feel like we've got depth at our goaltending position. Where some teams have got depth at other positions, ours has been goaltending right now, so we're pretty confident."
Forget the company line; goaltending will remain a major concern. But there really wouldn't appear to be too many possible solutions on the trade market, so it could be Emery and Gerber for the duration. Good luck with that.
Whatever happens on or off the ice with the Sens, expect to hear plenty about it in the media. Hockey is kind of important in Ottawa. It's all part of playing in Canada.
"Well, I think you get used to it more than anything," said Spezza of all the attention. "Maybe guys coming from west coast teams or something like that, it's a bit of a shock that you lose two games and the city is in panic. But I'd rather play in a place where people live and die by every game and watch the games and enjoy it, and it's a topic of conversation at everybody's lunchtime.
"I really enjoy the pressure, and I think the guys on our team enjoy it. We have high expectations for ourselves, and sometimes it's hard to meet up with those expectations, but it's better to have expectations like that than to just be a mediocre team and have people satisfied with playing .500 hockey."
Player, Team PPG 1. Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa 1.49 2. Jason Spezza, Ottawa 1.42 3. Dany Heatley, Ottawa 1.40 4. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh 1.37 Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit 1.37 6. Alexander Ovechkin, Washington 1.33 7. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh 1.30 8. Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay 1.29 9. Jarome Iginla, Calgary 1.21 10. Joe Thornton, San Jose 1.20