It was St. Patrick’s Day, a sea of green colouring the scene, but for Canadian NHL teams and their fans it felt more like Christmas Day.
How else to qualify the picture-perfect Eastern Conference standings, where four of the top eight teams have Canadian postal codes. One Canadian-based club, perhaps two, in the sunniest of pre-season forecasts,
were expected to qualify for the playoffs. But four?
If only this might last. The most surprising of the bunch was at Scotiabank Place Sunday evening, the unpredictable Winnipeg Jets, riding a three-game win streak, 5-0-1 in their previous six games, and winners of seven of their previous 10.
The Jets were due for a fall and the home team gladly obliged in this twilight affair, putting a 4-1 beating on the visitors to complete Ottawa’s perfect, four-point weekend, through no luck of the Irish. A suddenly lethal Senators power play put this one away, one slick Daniel Alfredsson pass, and then a Kyle Turris finish to snuff out any thoughts of a Jets comeback after they closed to within a goal.
Where have we seen that 7-11 combination before? Oh, yes, the day before, in Buffalo, in overtime. Turris from Alfredsson.
In craps, a 7-11 roll is called a “natural.” For the Senators, it’s become a natural way to finish off a power play.
“He’s one of the best players in the world, and he has been for the last 15 years,” Turris said of Alfredsson. “To be able to play with him, learn from him every day and receive those passes, it’s something special.”
Jakob Silfverberg, with a pair, again demonstrated how lethal his shot can be. Suddenly, rising from the image of the “goal-starved” Senators, goal scorers are emerging. That was No. 8 for Turris and Nos. 5 and 6 for Silfverberg, the shootout king.
Too bad we didn’t get to see the Jets at their best. As Alfredsson said afterward, the Jets “didn’t have their usual push,” due to a tough recent schedule. When they did threaten, goaltender Robin Lehner ranged from good to brilliant, as required.
“Maybe Lehner is Irish,” said Senators head coach Paul MacLean, of the big Swede in goal. Isn’t everyone on March 17?
Sunday aside, the Jets have been on a wild, mostly fun, ride over the past couple of weeks.
A bit like the injury-ravaged Senators, the Jets don’t know when to roll over dead. They didn’t get the memo when they were lingering at or near the eastern basement and lost their top defenceman, Tobias Enstrom, to a shoulder injury.
Quietly, the Jets have snuck up on the playoff pack, leading to Saturday’s bold move, blowing a 4-1 lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs before swiping the two points in the longest NHL shootout in more than two years. That extra point enabled Winnipeg to leap over the Carolina Hurricanes into first place in the weak Southeast Division et voila: they’re a third place team.
How long this lasts, no one can be certain, but the Jets may have a better chance at winning their division and securing third in the east than they do of qualifying for top eight in points.
The Leafs are the other “at risk” eastern Canadian team at the moment, losers of five straight and perilously close to falling out of the playoff group, just one point ahead of 8th place Carolina. The Hurricanes have two games in hand on Toronto.
With this win, the Senators are a rock solid fifth in the east. The ‘Pesky’ Sens rarely fail to pick up at least a point every game out, and have enough points in the bank at this point they could easily single-point their way into the postseason if it came to that. It likely won’t.
As for the Northeast Division leaders, the Montreal Canadiens have won five straight and show no signs of being anything but a top four team when the ice chips settle in late April.
For the Jets, it’s all about hanging in there. Playing their third game in four days, and their second in less than 24 hours, the Jets didn’t have much in the tank against a Senators team that smelled blood. After a slow start in Buffalo, Ottawa was not going to make that mistake against a Jets team that won here 1-0 on Hockey Day In Canada.
In fact, the Senators’ 19-shot barrage in the first period was one of its most dominant 20 minutes of hockey this season.
“If we could bottle that, we’d be pretty happy,” MacLean said of his team’s St. Paddy’s Day showing.
If it weren’t for a bit of luck, and a few pucks that goaltender Ondrej Pavelec didn’t see but stopped anyway, the Senators could put a five spot on the board in the first period alone. Instead, they put home two, by Guillaume Latendresse (on Alfredsson’s effort, featuring some of his renowned soccer skills), and Silfverberg. The young Swede showed skill and patience settling a bouncing puck off a Sergei Gonchar pass before roofing a shot on a suddenly lethal power play.
All in all, “a fun night,” to use MacLean’s words.