RESPECT THE BOLT

FANS TREATING THE TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING LIKE THE RODNEY DANGERFIELD OF HOCKEY ARE MISSING THE POINT

When the Tamp Bay Lightning eliminated the New York Rangers last week, much was said about the difference between their on ice celebration, where players poured off the bench to mob each other in raucous joy, to that of their eventual Stanley Cup opponent Chicago Blackhawks, who treated it like just another day at the office when they sent the Anaheim Ducks packing in the seventh game of the Western Conference Final. Since the matchup became official, the Bolts have been getting precious little respect from any corner of Hockeydom, the most charitable prediction most pundits have offered is that Steve Stamkos and crew may last as long as six games against the mighty Chicago Blackhawks. Reading most analytical breakdowns, the mainstream sports media seems content to ruffle Tampa Bay’s hair like the upstart scamps they are, scamps who are so overmatched they should just save themselves the bother and eventual humiliation and not even show up for the games. And while the media has been borderline condescending to the Lightning, the blogosphere has been even more merciless. According to the citizens of the Internet, Tampa is just lucky to be where they are, most are predicting the Bolts will suffer an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the boys from the Windy City and many give you the impression that the Lightning should bow down and kiss the feet of their opponents. Apparently, representing the East for the Stanley Cup, the toughest trophy in all of professional sports to win, no longer warrants any respect. The Tampa Lightning have become, for lack of a better comparison, the Rodney Dangerfield of the NHL.

This isn’t a prediction; these teams are both elite squads who earned their respective berths in the Final, and they offer one of the more intriguing matchups in recent memory. Nor is this to say that the Chicago Blackhawks don’t deserve the vast respect they get. This is a team that has made the playoffs seven consecutive years (no small feat in the NHL’s thirty team salary cap world), this is their third trip to the Stanley Cup finals in the past six years and they’ve hoisted Lord Stanley’s coveted Chalice twice in the same period. Lightning captain Steve Stamkos called the Blackhawks a beast, and for good reason. There is just as much chance that this series ends in a sweep, as there is that it goes the distance in a seven game marathon.

But the Tampa Bay Lightning deserve to be here just as much as the Chicago Blackhawks do. Tampa Bay was the highest scoring team in the regular season, a trend they’ve continued during the grind of the post season, when goals are often tougher to come by then an honest politician, and they significantly tightened up their mediocre defense. The Lightning eliminated the highly respected Detroit Red Wings (who have qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs an amazing 24 consecutive seasons and is regarded as the most efficiently run organization in the NHL), they knocked out the Montreal Canadiens and Carey Price (widely regarded as the best goaltender on the planet right now) in the second round and they sent the President Trophy winning New York Rangers (the most successful team in the regular season) packing in round three. In fact, Tampa Bay holds the distinction of being the only team to eliminate three “Original 6” teams to get to the Stanley Cup final, where they now face another one for the Cup. Steve Stamkos, who slept walked through Tampa’s first round battle with the Red Wings, awoke with a vengeance in round two and is skating hard, throwing hits and scoring big goals. In short he’s become the prototypical Stanley Cup franchise player, the Lightning’s possible answer to Chicago superstar and future Hall of Famer Jonathan Toews. The Bolts have an underrated blue line lead by 2009 second overall pick Victor Hedman, whose quickly becoming one of the game’s elite two way defenders, and while goalie Ben Bishop may not be reminding anyone of Patrick Roy, he’s shown that he can come up big when needed and has two game seven shut outs on his resume to prove it. There’s no reason to think that Tampa Bay will skate over Chicago, but there shouldn’t be any reason to think that they’ll be fodder for the Blackhawks either. And you can’t help but get the feeling that if any of the “Original Six” squads that the Bolts sent golfing were facing Chicago in the Final, that they’d be getting a little more respect and fewer pats on the head from the peanut gallery.

Game one of the series probably didn’t go according to either team’s plans. While Chicago won the game based on a pair of lightning quick (pardon the pun) goals late in the third period, they spent most of the game playing catch up and Tampa proved that they could hold the Blackhawks formidable attack at bay for long stretches. The Bolts meanwhile, learned that you can never count the Hawks out, you can never let up the attack and that Chicago will pounce on even the tiniest mistake and punish you for it. While Chicago’s 2-1 victory may have been the result a lot of people expected, it was hardly the blowout many predicted. The two teams probably learned quite a bit about each other during those three periods and fans can expect to see radically different battle plans from both squads for game two. While Tampa Bay management should be embarrassed by their absurd ban on Blackhawks jerseys and colours in certain seating areas during home games, Steve Yzerman and his staff should take enormous pride in the team they’ve assembled and the success it has enjoyed. Perhaps Tampa’s biggest motive to win the Stanley Cup is to finally earn some much deserved.

Shayne Kempton

SURPRISE SURPRISE

SUNDAY I LISTED THE 5 NHL TEAMS I THOUGHT WERE THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS LAST SEASON. TODAY I THOUGHT I’D SHARE THE 5 I THOUGHT WERE THE MOST SURPRISING

5. NEW JERSEY DEVILS

After bleeding high profile free agents the past few seasons (Zach Parise in 2012, David Clarkson last summer) and the “retirement” of Ilya Kovalchuk, no one outside of the most optimistic Devils fan thought New Jersey had a shot at the post season. Most observers, myself included, thought the Devils would have been in the running for the first overall selection in last June’s entry draft if the NHL hadn’t stripped them of their first round pick for trying to circumvent the salary cap with, you guessed it, Ilya Kovalchuck’s contract (the NHL would ease the penalty, awarding New Jersey the 30th overall selection). But while New Jersey was never really in the playoff conversation last season, they were never out of it either, finishing 10th in the Eastern conference and surprisingly only missing the post season dance by five lonely little points. In fact, GM Lou Lamoriello was able to leverage last season’s surprising success to convince Jaromir Jagr to return for another season, lock up their current top blue liner Mike Greene for another four years and lure Mike Cammilleri away from the Calgary Flames as a free agent. Not bad for a team a lot of people wrote off last summer.

4. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

While I didn’t think the Bolts would finish as low as they did in 2013 (finishing higher then only Florida in the East and drafting third overall), I didn’t think they were playoff material either, especially after they bought out Vincent Lecavalier, the former face of the franchise. But Tampa Bay started the season by winning games. A lot of games. When Steve Stamkos broke his leg in November, sidelining him for three months and costing him a spot on Canada’s Olympic team, most people wrote them off. But they kept winning. Just after the Olympics, when long time sniper and future Hall of Famer Martin St.-Louis demanded a trade because he felt snubbed by Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman for initially being left off Canada’s Olympic roster (Stevie Y wasted little time tapping St.-Louis to replace the injured Stamkos), many observers felt that would disrupt Tampa’s chemistry more then enough to crash their season. But they kept winning (and managed to get an excellent return for the disgruntled St.-Louis). Buoyed by a Vezina caliber season from goalie Ben Bishop and carried by a collection of young forwards that Yzerman had quietly assembled, the Lightning soared from second last in the East in 2013 to the top of their division in only a single season.

3. COLORADO AVALANCHE

Like the Lightning, I didn’t think Colorado was going to do as poorly in 2014 as they did in 2013, when they finished dead last in the West and owned the second worst record in the league. But I hardly expected them to go from the basement to the top of their division (arguably the toughest in the NHL) either. But rookie coach Patrick Roy coaxed an outstanding season from goalie Semyon Varlamov and guided a dynamic collection of young forwards to the Pacific Division title, bringing respectability back to a once mighty franchise that had fallen on desperate times in recent years. Varlamov was nominated for the Vezina as the NHL’s top goalie, 2013 first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon won the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year, Matt Duchesne enjoyed a breakout season that saw him named to Canada’s Olympic roster over the likes of Taylor Hall and Claude Giroux, Ryan O’Reilly proved why he was so coveted as a restricted free agent the previous year, power forward Gabriel Landeskog proved why he was named the youngest captain in team history (and represented his native Sweden in Sochi) and Paul Stastny regained his former glory. Throw in vets Alex Tanguay and P.A. Parenteau and after suffering through years where Colorado couldn’t buy a goal, the Avs terrorized opposing goalies with one of the deadliest attacks in the NHL last season.

2. MONTREAL CANADIENS

Be honest, did you really think the Habs would be the only team from north of the border to qualify for the NHL post season? And did you honestly expect them to get all the way to the third round? I didn’t, particularly when they ran up against their long time rivals from Beantown in the second round. In a lot of people’s eyes, Boston was destined for a second consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup final, and the 2011 Stanley Cup champs were also the 2014 Presidents Cup winners, dominating the NHL during the regular season. And when the Bruins went up 3-2 in the series, a lot of people were ready to throw in the towel on the Habs. Including yours truly. But with Carey Price saving more rubber then a recycling plant in the Habs net and defenseman P.K. Subban becoming a more unstoppable force of nature with every game, the Habs proved to be the real deal. And had Price not been injured in the opening game of the Habs third round series against the New York Rangers, you could very well have seen the Bleu et Blanc facing off against the L.A. Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals. And speaking of New York . . .

1. NEW YORK RANGERS

The Rangers were by far the most surprising team this past season. New York enjoyed a decent regular season, finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference and twelve overall, but weren’t exactly the sexiest pick to represent the East in the Stanley Cup finals. Even the trade deadline acquisition of Martin St-Louis drew little attention. After all, it was hardly a secret that St.-Louis, who demanded a trade out of Tampa Bay following the Sochi Olympics, would only waive his no trade clause for the Rangers, And while they raised a few eyebrows when they knocked the Philadelphia Flyers out of the playoffs in the opening round, it wasn’t until the second round that the blue shirts started to make some real noise. When the Rangers found themselves on the wrong side of a 3-1 deficit during their second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, most fans gave them up for dead. But the Rangers roared back, sending Sidney Crosby, Evengi Malkin and company packing, winning the first game of their comeback without St.-Louis, who was attending his mother’s funeral. And for an encore, the Rangers knocked the red-hot P.K. Subban and Montreal Canadiens out next, clawing and fighting their way to the Final. True, the Rangers benefitted from a weaker Eastern Conference (the east looks like it’s completely up for grabs next season), but they displayed no shortage of tenacity in their unlikely trek to their date with Los Angeles.

Shayne Kempton

 

DESPITE ANY THE OPINIONS TO THE CONTRARY, THE NHL ENTRY DRAFT IS STILL THE ONLY WAY TO TRULY BUILD A STANLEY CUP WINNING TEAM

English: Stage for NHL Entry Draft

English: Stage for NHL Entry Draft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

     A few years ago I got into a fierce debate with a good friend of mine over the importance of the NHL entry draft.  A passionate Leafs fan, he was defending Brain Burke’s decision to trade the Leafs first and second round picks in the 2010 entry draft and their first round pick in 2011 to the Boston Bruins in return for Phil Kessel.  I wasn’t the only one who criticized the deal, the majority of hockey pundits cast doubt on it as well.  In fact, the only ones who seemed to defend it were members of the Toronto media and Leafs Nation.  The deal looked even worse when the bottom fell out of the Leafs 2009-10 season and they watched as the second overall pick, which should have been their consolation prize for such a dreadful season, went to the Bruins, who drafted the highly touted Tyler Seguin.  It must have stung just a bit more when Seguin made the jump directly to the NHL on a deep Bruins roster, and then was a huge factor in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, helping the Bruins defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning and moving on to eventually defeat the Vancouver Canucks for the Stanley Cup.  To add a little extra salt to the Leafs wounded pride, they saw the newly defending Stanley Cup champs use the other first round pick they surrendered for Kessel to draft hulking young blue liner Doug Hamilton ninth overall that June (Hamilton was widely considered the best North American defenceman available in that draft).

     My friend’s opinion, indeed much of Leaf’s Nation collective belief, seemed to mimic that of former Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher (who when asked about trading away so many of Toronto’s draft picks, once replied “draft schmaft”), that the entry draft didn’t deserve to be taken seriously as a source for talent and that the future was now (it should be noted that while Cliff Fletcher never won a Stanley Cup with the Leafs, he was GM of the Calgary Flames when they won the Cup in 1988-with a lineup full of Flames draft picks).  But watching beaming teenagers getting drafted last Sunday afternoon and hearing all the rumours swirling around, it was easy to remember that successful drafting and patient development is the only true key to winning Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice.

     Take the Pittsburgh Penguins for example.  During the half decade where they missed the playoffs, flirted with bankruptcy and relocation and played to a half filled relic of a stadium, the Pens were able to amass a wealth of talent, drafting Evengi Malkin second overall in 2004 and Jordan Staal at that same spot in 2006, Marc-Andre Fleury first overall in 2003 and nabbed the prize of prizes by drafting Sydney Crosby first overall in 2005.  It didn’t hurt that they also tabbed defenceman Brooks Orpik in 2001 and drafted all-star defenceman Kris Letang in the third round of 2005.  All of those names were present and accounted for when the Penguins went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and again when they defeated the Detroit Red Wings in a Stanley Cup championship rematch the following season.  While the Pens haven’t made it back to the final since winning it all in 2009, they’ve hardly been in danger of missing the playoffs and have been a regular season superpower every season since.  And you should also remember, this was Pittsburgh’s second kick at the Stanley Cup can; the Pens won back to back Cups in 1991 and 92, with teams that included names like Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, names Pittsburgh called out at the draft podium.

   But what if the Pens hadn’t won the coveted number one pick in the 2005 entry draft, you may ask?  They simply benefited from an enormous amount of luck that year (or scheming, if the numerous yet unfounded conspiracy theories are to be believed), because without Crosby Pittsburgh’s Cup dreams evaporate.  Perhaps, and if Pittsburgh were the only arrow in that quiver you might be right.  But look no further than the Chicago Blackhawks for an even better example.  Chi-town’s team had been exiled to the NHL’s basement for years but collected a fortune of wealth in the likes of Johnathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Dave Bolland and Corey Crawford, all of whom held the Cup aloft in 2010 and again this year (making the draft-built Blackhawks the only team to win the Stanley Cup twice in the salary cap era).  Or you could take the Boston Bruins; not only 2011 Stanley Cup champions but also 2013 Stanley Cup finalists.  The 2006 entry draft was a good one for Beantown; that’s the year they picked up the aforementioned Phil Kessel in the first round, Milan Lucic in the second and Brad Marchand in the third.  While we know how Mr. Kessel’s time in a Bruins jersey ended, Lucic and Marchand have been vital cogs in the successful Bruins machine, joined by second round picks Patrice Bergeron and David Krecji (drafted in 2003 and 2004 respectively).   Or we could take the L.A. Kings, the defending 2012 Stanley Cup champions who were also a member of this year’s final four, their core consisting of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and stand-on-his-head-goalie Johnathan Quick.  Take a quick guess how many the Kings drafted?  If you said all of them, congratulations, you guessed it in one.  We could also use the St. Louis Blues as an example.  Or the Tampa Bay Lightning, if they ever get back to the post season while Steve Stamkos is in his twenties.

     I may be accused of saying that only teams that spend years sucking, to the growing despair of their fans, can build themselves into Stanley Cup champions.  Au contraire grasshopper.  The Detroit Red Wings haven’t drafted in the top ten since 1991 when they picked Martin Lapointe tenth overall.  For those keeping score, the Red Wings have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs an unprecedented 22 times in a row (that’s nearly a quarter of a century where Wings fans have been able to enjoy playoff hockey), they’ve played in six Stanley Cup finals since 1995 and won four of them.  The Red Wings have always been masters of the draft, finding gems in the rough, patiently and efficiently developing them, fending off attrition and Father Time himself with a seemingly endless pipeline of deserving prospects.  The same could once be said for the New Jersey Devils, and they have the Stanley Cup banners to show for it (three Cups since 1995, though the Devils are in a bit of a bumpy transition now).  The Ottawa Senators were able to overcome catastrophic injuries this season by depending on excellent organizational depth to not only get them into the playoffs, but to eliminate the highly favoured Montreal Canadiens in the first round while hardly breaking a sweat.  Most of that depth came via the draft.

     All the teams mentioned made missteps and made some pretty high-profile picks they’d rather forget (Cam Barker anyone?  Angelo Esposito?  Tom Hickey?  No?  Can’t say I blame you) and each made significant additional moves to compliment the cores they had assembled through the draft, usually moving surplus assets late in the season or at the trading deadline.  And there are plenty of teams that prove you can mess up successive years of high draft picks.  The New York Islanders and the late Atlanta Thrashers for starters (though New York redeemed themselves a little by sneaking into the playoffs this year), and my painfully beloved Oilers are on the verge of becoming another (the Oilers are actually a pretty fair example of what results from years of bad and reckless drafting). You have to cautiously shepherd your young talent with the necessary veteran presence and resist the temptation to rush your prospects, no matter the hype surrounding them.  The fact is that successful drafting is like great goaltending in the Stanley Cup playoffs; having it won’t guarantee you win, but missing it guarantees you won’t.

Tyler Seguin during a game against the Buffalo...

Tyler Seguin during a game against the Buffalo Sabres during the 2010-11 season (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Right now, the Kessel trade doesn’t look quite as bad.  Kessel was excellent for the Leafs this past season and bordered on fantastic during their riveting first round series against their former trading partners this past spring; the Bruins benched Doug Hamilton for the entire Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks and the entire hockey world was taken by surprise when Tyler Seguin’s name popped up in trade rumours just days before the 2013 entry draft.  For the record though, I still wouldn’t have made that trade, and I don’t think Brian Burke would have either.  I think he gambled that the Leafs would probably miss the playoffs in 2010, but with Kessel added to their lineup they’d be a bubble team (they drafted seventh in 2009; a pick they used on Nazem Kadri), their choice falling somewhere between tenth and fourteenth.  And I’m pretty sure he was confident that with a few tweaks and improvements, that his Leafs would be in a playoff spot come 2011.  Phil Kessel is an excellent player, an elite one, whose has demonstrated character and fortitude to compliment his speed and skill (he won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in 2007 for overcoming testicular cancer), but I suspect, no matter how much he’s defended the trade since, that if he knew what he’d be parting with, Burke wouldn’t have made the deal. Seguin’s name is bouncing around in trade rumours only because the Bruins find themselves in salary cap trouble while twenty year old Dougie Hamilton is dripping with raw potential and will spend the better part of the next decade being mentored by blue line titan Zdeno Chara.  And let’s not forget the Bruins also snared Jared Knight with the Leafs 2010 second round pick, a pure goal scorer in the OHL whose progress has been slowed by injuries but is still expected to eventually develop into a promising NHL player.  But if you still need evidence that drafting isn’t merely the best way to build a Stanley Cup caliber team, but the only way, just scan the rafters at the Air Canada Centre, home to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and count how many Stanley Cup banners they’ve won in the past four decades and the answer should put any doubts you may still have to rest.

Shayne Kempton

DRAFT PLEASE

IMG_0247A HEARTFELT APOLOGY TO THE OTTAWA SENATORS

     Let me begin by saying I like the Ottawa Senators.  I really do.  I am-and remain-an Edmonton Oilers fan, which is why when I moved to the Nation’s Capital I promised myself I’d resist the urge to make any sort of emotional investment in the Senators.  You see, at the time the Sens were coming off their second season since rejoining the NHL as an expansion team and were the joke of the professional sports world.  Seriously.   Not only had they finished last both years (by a country mile), but had captured records for sheer awfulness. They finished dead last their third season as well.  And they’re fourth for those of you keeping score at home.  My point is, when I decided to uproot myself and make Ottawa my home, the Sens weren’t just bad, they were historically bad.  Adding insult to injury was the fact that they were still sharing a building with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s (the Civic Centre, capacity 10 585), and would continue to do so until early 1996.  And the Oilers at the time, weren’t far behind in the punchline category.  In fact, one team the Senators usually had some sort of chance against in those dark, early years, were the Edmonton Oilers.  When pondering whether or not I should follow the Sens, as an established Oilers fan, did I really want to do that to myself?  I mean let’s face it, if I was going to split my loyalties, why follow the biggest punching bag in all of professional hockey when I was already following one of the worst?  Why not follow Detroit or Pittsburgh or the Montreal Canadiens, who claimed much of Ottawa’s relatively virgin fan base  (while Toronto claimed much of the rest)?

But the truth is, the Senators grew on me.  And why not?  There were plenty of similarities between the two teams back then, aside from their dismal records.  Both were small market Canadian teams trying to compete against much richer squads in the days before the salary cap, when the Canadian Loonie could buy you an American nickel.  Both had a handful of shiny young players they were pinning their future hopes on-Ottawa boasted talented superstar centre Alexei Yashin, Alexandre “the Second Coming of Mario Lemieux” Daigle and the highly touted Radek Bonk while Edmonton’s prayers included names like Doug Weight and Jason Arnott.  Ironically, both teams ended their losing ways at the same time, the Senators making the playoffs for the first time in 1997 while the Oilers ended a five year playoff drought that same year.  Both teams flirted with relocation (the Sens sinking as low as bankruptcy before being rescued by billionaire Eugene Melnyk) and both teams flirted with greatness, with Edmonton making an improbable run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2006 and the Ottawa Senators doing so in 2007.

So yes, I like the Ottawa Senators.  I like to see them do well.  Make no mistake, when they play Edmonton my ultimate loyalty remains with the Oilers (but cheering for an Edmonton win in overtime allows the Oilers to claim a rare victory while it allows the Senators to steal a point in what has become a claustrophobic Eastern Conference), but I have watched the Senators grow and have taken pride in their achievements and shared their sorrow during their defeats.  I was happy for them when they made the playoffs for the first time in 1997.  I swore at the TV whenever Alexei Yashin decided to wage another contractual temper tantrum and I cheered for them in 2003 when they advanced to the Final Four and again in 2007 when they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final.  I despised Dany Heatley as much as any Sens fan when he turned his back on the franchise that had welcomed him after his life and career became a literal train wreck in Atlanta (even more so when he snubbed the Oilers repeated attempts to trade for him) and I felt the swelling bitterness when Ottawa was driven from the post season by the hated Toronto Maple Leafs not once, not twice, not even thrice but four god forsaken times.  Living in the Ottawa during all of those ups and down probably had a thing or two to do with my growing affection for the team as well, but as an Oilers fan, I became enamoured with underdogs.  And whether it was luck or design, the Sens have been underdogs more often than not.

But being a fan has never completely blinded me to reality.  OK, well, it has on occasion, but we’re talking less than 50/50 here.  After all, I AM an OILERS fan.  Delusion is part of the package.  It’s how we cope.  But it also equips you with more than enough pragmatism to look at a situation subjectively and size it up.  It’s either “we’ve got a real shot here,” or “yeah, we’re totally boned.”  I’m sure you get the picture.   And last winter, I took a look at Ottawa and figured they were destined to miss the playoffs (if there’s one thing an Oilers fan is an expert at, it’s failure and post season futility).

I don’t think I was too out of line.  Ottawa qualified for the 2012 playoffs by capturing the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, and they had the fewest points of any team that made the post season that spring.  And that modest level of success exceeded most people’s expectations for Ottawa that year (the Sens missed the playoffs in 2011, and most predictions for the 2011-12 season leaned towards them missing the post-season again and participating in the Nail Yakupov sweepstakes).  And some of the teams that trailed Ottawa by a handful of points in the East made some significant gains last summer.  Carolina, who finished ten points behind the Senators, added top six forwards Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin.  Steve Yzerman, whose Tampa Bay Lightning trailed Ottawa by 8 points come season’s end, added free agent blue liners Matt Carle and Sami Salo to his weak defense corps and bolstered his struggling goaltending staff by acquiring (then) highly sought after netminder Anders Lindback.  But the team I felt represented the biggest threat to the Sens playoff presence was the Buffalo Sabres, who despite losing over 300 man games to injury and enduring a sub par year from franchise goalie Ryan Miller, finished a mere three points beneath the Sens.  And none of that takes into account the Toronto Maple Leafs inevitable (some might say overdue) improvement from a basement team to a playoff one, or the remarkable turnaround  of the Montreal Canadiens, jumping from dead last in the Eastern Conference to second place.  What was Ottawa’s big move?  Trading Nick Foligno to Columbus for defenseman Marc Methot.  In fact, the only team I considered in more jeopardy of losing their playoff berth was the New Jersey Devils (well, I swung an even .500 on that one).

And all my crystal ball gazing came before the Senators avalanche of injuries.

Defenceman Jared Cowen underwent season ending surgery in November to repair a hip he injured playing for the AHL Binghamton Senators during the early days of the NHL lockout (though he made a surprising comeback at the end of April).  Norris trophy winner Erik Karlsson returned to the lineup during the first round matchup against Montreal after missing over two months with a sliced Achilles tendon after a run in with a reckless Matt Cooke in February (Karlsson wasn’t expected back until next October).  Jason Spezza was on the shelf between January and mid May with a herniated disc and Craig Anderson, easily the team’s MVP this season (whose absence from this year’s Vezina nominees has raised a few eyebrows) and sniper Milan Michalek have missed considerable chunks of time.  Taking all that into account, would any sane man have bet on the Senators playoff chances?  In fact, I know a lot of Senator fans who thought they’d be in the hunt for the first overall pick after the injuries started piling up (could you imagine adding Seth Jones to a blue line that already included Erik Karlsson, Jared Cowen and potentially Codi Ceci?).  And I did go so far as to bet a co-worker lunch that the Sens would fail to qualify for the post season.  Don’t worry Matt, I haven’t forgotten, although if you insist on McDonald’s I reserve the right to yak on your Senators jersey.

So here’s my apology Senators, because the one thing I should have learned about this team from the time I decided to begin cheering for the rare win while they were still playing on OHL ice, to this year’s Cinderella bouncing of the highly favoured Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, is to never count this team out when the odds are against them.  Make no mistake, there have been plenty of times this team has choked.  There were years when they skated into the playoffs as the favourite to win the Cup, years where they had dominated the regular season, only to crumble under the pressure.  But when they’ve been counted out before a single regular season game has been played, or before a single skate blade touched playoff ice, that’s when they’re dangerous.  That’s when they’re most effective.  Especially this year, when catastrophic injuries forced them to play playoff hockey all season long.  And while things may not look so good for them against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins right now, the fact that they managed to make it this far, often with a roster that resembled an AHL team more than an NHL one, is no small victory in itself.  So sorry Sens, in the future, I hope I’ll know better.  You earned this.

Go Sens Go.

Shayne Kempton

A HEARTFELT APOLOGY TO THE OTTAWA SENATORS