PITTSBURGH – It’s cool and cloudy. Not very summer-like.
Still, it feels like the Senators season is coming to a close.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are just too strong. Too experienced. Too deep. And they want a break before the conference finals.
“It’s a must win every game in the series,” Kris Letang said this morning. “Tonight is a must win for us. We don’t want to give them any life, to get back in the series. So we’ve got to bring our best game.”
If they needed any extra motivation, the Penguins are 0-6 when trying to close out a series at home.
They’ll be out to change that this evening.
“We haven’t won one at home,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “We’ve had an opportunity to close out on the road (in the past) and taken that opportunity. It’s a situation right now where we feel like we have three wins and we don’t necessarily feel like they’ve come easy. We’ve played our best road game and maybe our best game and lost in Ottawa, in Game 3. So we bounced back and won a tough game in Ottawa in Game 4, and now we’re coming home with an opportunity. I think our team knows exactly how important to get this opportunity is, to get the fourth win and try to do that right here as soon as possible, and not look at his as being three more games. We have one game right in front of us, and it’s important to have that mentality and mindset for us tonight.”
PITTSBURGH – It’s cool and cloudy. Not very summer-like.
Paul MacLean is playing a hunch by suiting up Mark Stone for Wednesday’s crucial Game 4 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A hunch that Stone can step in and help offensively like he did when he was parachuted into the Senators-Rangers first-round matchup last spring.
You’ll remember that Stone’s first NHL game was the fifth of the series against the Rangers. The Senator won it 2-0, with Stone setting up Jason Spezza for the game winner and Spezza adding a an empty netter to seal the matter.
It would be the last game the Senators would win.
Stone didn’t play Games 6 and 7 of the series, as MacLean inserted Jakob Silfverberg in his place. Silfverberg did not produce a point.
“It’s a pretty similar scenario for me, coming into a series almost half over,” Stone said after the morning skate Wednesday morning. “I’m excited to be a part of it. Just looking to produce at the best of my ability.”
Stone, who saw 8:43 of ice time that night, will replace Cory Conacher and play on a line with Spezza as the Senators try to even their series with the Penguins.
A huge point producer as a junior with the Brandon Wheat Kings, the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder had a strong second half of the season with Binghamton during this, his first year as a pro.
I think he would have had a shot with Ottawa earlier in these playoffs if he were a left winger – where the Senators are not as strong – and not a right-handed shot who has always played the right side.
With his size, he’ll be better equipped to handle the battles in front of the net than Conacher. But as a mediocre/slow skater, can he keep up to the fast-paced second-round play.
That’s the big question.
“Obviously it’s fast hockey,” said Stone. “These guys look like they play pretty fast, but at the same time I think the way our team plays, it slows them down a fair bit. We’re very good, sound defensively. We play as a five man unit. Definitely helps with individual play.”
Spezza said Stone “has that natural calm demeanor about him” that helped lead to his success in one intense playoff game last year.
The two of were watching from the press box together while Spezza worked his way back from injury and Stone waited for his chance.
Can any chemistry they have developed strike twice?
“Obviously he’s a fantastic player,” said Stone. “He’s a guy you want to give the puck to whenever you can. He makes plays, he makes things happen pretty much every time he steps on the ice. If there’s anybody you want to get the puck to, you want it to be on his stick.”
Spezza will be a key for the Senators in Game 4. Clearly, MacLean is hoping that putting Stone in the lineup can help speed up the progression of his big centre.
Here’s what we know: We are headed back to Pittsburgh.
Don Brennan, Errol McGihon and Le Droit sports editor Marc Brassard will jump into a rented SUV Thursday morning to head back to Steeltown. The deer will be safe. We’re driving during the day.
If you think we’re the only ones behind the wheel we’re not. The guys across the street and Roy MacGregor of the Globe will be in another vehicle. Driving to Pittsburgh can provide better connections than flying.
What position will the Senators be in?
Tied 2-2 or down 3-1?
Hard to say. The Penguins are a champion calibre team. They can handle adversity. They’ve proved it in the past. They did it to get here. I’m not sure they’re exactly facing any here. They lost a game. It took five periods.
In my eyes, the Senators have to play better in this series.
They’ve never led. They are playing with fire here and they don’t have the firepower the Penguins have. There has been no respect shown to Tomas Vokoun, but he’s a heck of a goalie with a strong track record.
You cannot expect _ or want _ Craig Anderson to make 50 saves every night. He needs some support. The Senators were only 30 seconds away from disaster, 30 seconds away from everybody holding off on making any plans from going back to Pittsburgh.
The Senators have booked the trip with the win Sunday. If they can win Wednesday they can make it worth their while. Otherwise they’ll be back on the brink and fighting for another chance to come home Sunday.
Big test. We’ll check in with you from Pittsburgh.
It’s a long road ahead getting there but we’ll find out if there’s a long road ahead for the Senators.
Let’s see now. Craig Anderson has returned, Jared Cowen, Erik Karlsson and now even Jason Spezza, too.
If we see the old Milan Michalek in Game 3, the Senators should be in good shape.
Theories vary as to why the 35 goal scorer of a year ago has not been very productive this season. Mostly, we are told, his surgically repaired knee isn’t right. But I see his hands giving him more trouble than his legs.
Somebody mentioned today that Michalek was jumping into the dirty areas in front of the net, but without Jason Spezza to feed him when he got there, he wasn’t seeing the puck. After awhile, he stopped jumping.
Well tonight he gets Spezza back as his centre, with Cory Conacher on the other side. Perhaps it will help to his second goal of the playoffs – and just his sixth, in 31 games, this season.
I asked Paul MacLean is generally able to make the switch from left wing to right, where he’ll be tonight, relatively seamlessly.
In a nutshell, the coach said: “Because he’s a good player.”
He does get one of the better pay cheques.
Asked what he anticipates Spezza’s return will have on Michalek, MacLean said: “Sometimes when you get one player back, you get two back.”
I don’t think he meant it disrespectfully, or to suggest that until now, he’s been disappointed with every aspect of Michalek’s game. MacLean can rhyme off things Michalek does well. I don’t see enough of them, but I did notice improvement in Game 2.
The Michalek who used to be a goal scorer needs to show up tonight.
I posted this earlier. Thought I should put it here. No it’s not a blog. It’s news.
PITTSBURGH – It wasn’t just the earthquake shifting the ground around Ottawa.
There’s a strong possibility Senators’ centre Jason Spezza could return to the lineup for Game 3 of the club’s playoff series Sunday night at Scotiabank Place against the Penguins.
Coach Paul MacLean told reporters Spezza is continuing to skate in Ottawa as he recovers from back surgery. A decision on whether he’ll play or not will be made after Sunday’s morning skate. This is the first time that MacLean hasn’t completely dismissed Spezza’s return.
A source told the Sun Spezza is targeting a Sunday return, but has to get clearance from the doctors.
“He continues to skate on a daily basis and makes progress,” said MacLean Friday. “We’ll go through practice (Saturday) and the pre-game skate and we’ll see where it is. If he’s available to us, it’s Jason Spezza, we’re going to have him in the lineup.”
The Senators will have an optional skate Saturday and Spezza will skate with that group.
“I know I’m going to be there to watch it,” said MacLean. “I might not be on the ice, but we’ll make a decision from there. I don’t know about all the medical hurdles but I’ll know more about that (Saturday).”
Spezza hasn’t suited up since Jan. 27.
The Senators are in Pittsburgh Friday for Game 2 of their conference semi-final series against the Penguins. Pittsburgh leads the series 1-0.