14th place in the Eastern Conference? Thoroughly victimized over the last few seasons by the Toronto Maple Leafs? Yes, these Ottawa Senators appear to be ripe for the picking for a surging Leafs squad. Â A Leafs squad that must also anticipate the final three games of the season, must-wins against opponents stronger than a suddenly-rebuilding Senators team. This also appears to be a situation that could evoke the sort of mental relaxation and carelessness in the Leafs that would see Ottawa happily steal away two points at Scotiabank Place.
Indeed, it was almost assured that the Leafs of just a few years ago (lead by Stajan, Blake and co.) would have let this be the sort of head-slapping upset capable of immediately deflating the team (and an entire fanbase). While it’s too early to tell for sure, it seems Brian Burke has assembled a young, motivated squad with a bit more of that ever-so-valuable “mental fortitude”. To the man, they have been very open about the focus they will bring tonight, knowing there is no room for error. To avoid another whiteout at the hands of Craig Anderson and the Senators, the Leafs will have to trot out the same level of effort and intensity that they displayed in Boston.
Speaking of Anderson, the Ottawa tender of the near future has shown that his dominating performance against Toronto was not an anomaly. Â Having regained theÂ rhythmÂ and focus that saw him have a great season last year in Colorado, Anderson has lifted the Senators to 5 wins in their last 10. Â The American netminder is at his best when facing a heavy workload, with the right motivation to fuel his urge to battle and remain sharp. Â There is no doubt that Anderson is currently in the zone, playing in front of a loose Senators team that is having fun for the first time this season.
As such, Toronto should aim to pressure a mistake-prone Ottawa defense immediately, and hope to secure themselves at least a one goal lead. Â In that situation, the Senators have had a tendency (in recent weeks) to either step up their attack (and expose themselves defensively) or to fold in the towel (mainly on the days that Jason Spezza decides to not show up). Â Either path should put the Leafs in a position to generate scoring chances.
With the recent signing of college free agent Da Costa, the Senators elected to return Colin Greening to the AHL. Â Somewhat of a surprising move, considering the rookie has been one of the best Ottawa forwards since the trade deadline. Â He had formed an energetic and hard-working complement to Jason Spezza, and it remains to be seen how this will affect Spezza’s game. Â Da Costa himself will line up in the third-line C slot. Â The diminutive forward has the potential to be a decent second-line center and tonight will be a big first step in hisÂ acclimatizationÂ to the NHL game.
One would think Phil Kessel had this game circled on his calendar, as he has torched the Senators to the tune of 22 points in 23 games over the last few years. Â While many would consider the Thrill to be in one of his patented goal-scoring slumps (1 G in his 9 games), he has found ways to put up points regardless (8 in his last 8, to be exact). Â This has a lot to do with Kessel’s increased dedication to hard work, but also to the Leafs de facto #1 LW: Joffrey Lupul. Â Lupul has injected skill and size onto Kessel’s line, arguably for the first time this whole season. Â All goal scorers in this league, even the elite, go into slumps. Â While most don’t bear the scrutiny that Kessel does, they also alleviate criticism by contributing irregardless of their scoring. Â This usually manifests as a combination of defensive awareness, physical play, and playmaking. Â And riding the coattails of competent linemates, on occasion. Â It is likely the difference between a 30 goal, 30 assist Kessel and a more mature version of the winger that could put up consistent 35 goal, 40 assist numbers.
The ever-humble Reiminister of Defense:
“Iâ€™m honoured to get rookie of the month. Â I donâ€™t know how much credit I can take for it. I think whenever a goalie gets an accolade or something like that I think itâ€™s always indicative of how the team is playing. Iâ€™m happy to receive it, but really I think itâ€™s the guys in the room that really won that one.”
It’s that sort of mentality that likely inspires his teammates to fight even harder for him. Â Why wouldn’t you throw it all out there for a guy that only ever gives everyone else credit for the team’s success? Â It’s unselfish gestures such as these that create the bonds of a true team, even though Reimer’s teammates aren’t ready to hoard all the praise:
“Heâ€™ll say that weâ€™re doing all the work in front of him, [but] we know how well heâ€™s played back there” (Tyler Bozak)
Courtesy of Jonas Siegel: