Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Cross Checks [Print without images]

Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Daily Debate: Defying the skeptics

By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun

Burnside: Good day, my friend. Well, that was quite a tilt at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night. The Toronto Maple Leafs at times dominated the Ottawa Senators, who were playing their second game in 24 hours, but couldn’t close the deal, allowing a 2-0 lead to turn into a crushing 3-2 defeat. Craig Anderson was terrific for the Senators, turning aside 37 of 39 shots for the amazing Sens.

Remember when people were questioning GM Bryan Murray for inking Anderson to a contract extension last year after a relatively brief period of good work for the Senators? He’s looking more and more like the guy who single-handedly dragged the Colorado Avalanche into the playoffs in 2009-10.

The Leafs, meanwhile, didn’t get quite enough goaltending from James Reimer, who was playing in his first game in weeks. He allowed a soft goal with eight seconds left in the first period to change the complexion of the game, and the winner by Kyle Turris less than two minutes into the third also should have been stopped. The Leafs are still just a point out of a playoff spot with the Caps losing to the Islanders on Tuesday, but this was a loss -- their third in a row -- that’ll stick with them for a while.

LeBrun: The Senators’ story continues to write itself and it’s nothing short of sensational. This was a rebuilding year. The in-house expectations within that front office were that it was going to be a long season.

I asked captain Daniel Alfredsson on Tuesday what his reaction would have been in camp had I told him the Senators would be fifth in the Eastern Conference in mid-January.

"I’ll take it," Alfredsson said his response would have been, smiling. "I don’t think we knew ourselves what to expect going into the season. ... I think we felt we could maybe surprise some people, but to be as consistent as we have been, we maybe didn’t figure we could do that. But we’ve grown, we’ve worked hard at it and we know it’s going to get even harder. But it’s been fun to this point."

The veterans on the team, who have been hugely important in guiding a club chock-full of young bucks, point to coach Paul MacLean and his staff as the most important factor in the unexpected success.

"We’ve got a good system," Alfredsson said. "The coaches have done a great job of getting everyone involved and making them feel like they’re part of the team and contributing every night. That’s been huge for us, and probably the biggest reason we’ve been able to play as well as we have."

Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis likely has another Jack Adams Award locked up if the Blues continue as they have been, but surely MacLean will at least get nominated for his tremendous work in somehow getting young players to play key minutes without making the kind of mistakes or suffering the loss of confidence that young players usually have.

"He’s a huge part of this," veteran blueliner Chris Phillips told me Tuesday about MacLean. "From coach to coach, you look around the league, everyone has different game plans; it’s not about which game plan works -- they all win -- it’s as long as everybody is pulling in the same direction. That’s what we have right now."

The Sens close out their schedule before the All-Star break with games in San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Phoenix. It’s going to be a big test for a team some people still don’t truly believe in. Some people keep waiting for the Senators’ bubble to burst, and that is also driving the players in that room.

"Everybody, now that we’re halfway through the season, are saying, 'Are they for real or not?'" Alfredsson said. "We just try to stay in the present and go about our business."

Burnside: I’m not going to rain on the Sens’ parade, but their record is a little bit skewed because they’ve played 48 games -- more than any other team in the NHL. And although they have shored up their game defensively, they still give up way too many quality chances in my books, as Tuesday’s game will attest. Still, a terrific tale and much needed in a Canadian market that needed a shot in the arm after a precipitous fall from grace after the team's trip to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals.

Now, how about another couple of teams that are still defying the skeptics and that will meet Wednesday night. The Avalanche are still in the mix in the Western Conference, just a point out of eighth place. They’re in an interesting position, given that netminders Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Semyon Varlamov have both played well at times, although Varlamov is coming off a 6-1 drubbing at the hands of the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday. Varlamov didn’t speak after the game and, for my money, still has a lot of growing up to do if he’s going to be the franchise goalie GM Greg Sherman hoped he would be when he acquired him from Washington this past summer.

As for the Florida Panthers, just as they were starting to get healthy -- the return of Marcel Goc was a big boost to the Southeast Division leaders, and veteran netminder Jose Theodore is ready to roll again -- veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski goes out with a hand injury suffered while fighting Daniel Paille of the Boston Bruins on Monday. Ouch. Their visit to Denver on Wednesday is the first of a three-game road trip that also takes them to Chicago and Winnipeg. This is the part of the season when lots of folks are expecting the Panthers to fade back into the NHL woodwork.

LeBrun: Well, the Washington Capitals are doing their best to keep the Panthers in the turtle race known as the Southeast Division title chase, losing at home to the Islanders on Tuesday night. You have to wonder whether the team that doesn’t win the Southeast will even make the playoffs.

Having said that, I watched Boston-Florida on Monday night and thought the Panthers played a tremendous game against the Cup champs. It doesn’t look to me as if they’re ready to fade at all. The Panthers have been slowed down by a slew of injuries. That’s certainly a theme around the league this season, but it really hit hard for Florida because, as GM Dale Tallon cleverly rebuilds the organization, the Panthers don’t yet have the kind of depth needed to sustain coping with massive injuries over a long period of time.

When I spoke to Tallon last week about his ideas for the Feb. 27 trade deadline, he wanted to get healthy and look at the play of his team before he determined what he needed and whether he’d be a buyer.

Burnside: You’re exactly right on the depth front, my friend. Keaton Ellerby, the No. 10 pick from 2007, will get a chance to strut his stuff with Jovanovski out of action for what Tallon said might be six weeks, and I, too, thought that game against Boston was a nice statement game even though the Panthers ended up losing in a shootout. The crowds are starting to come around in Florida as the Panthers continue to occupy the division lead, and it would be nice to see the Cats play meaningful post-All Star break games for the first time in a long time.

Commissioner Gary Bettman has always insisted that there are fans in South Florida and that they just need a reason to come out. For a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2000 and hasn’t had a team with any real identity since the squad that snuck into the 1996 finals, this season has been a bonus. Now we’ll see whether rookie coach Kevin Dineen can keep his squad pointed in the right direction. We’ve seen teams such as the Minnesota Wild -- crushed by the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night by a 5-1 count -- go off the rails, so these will be interesting days for the Panthers.

Before we close, I’m curious to hear what you think about the resurgent Anaheim Ducks, who host Phoenix on Wednesday night. The Ducks have finally found something of a groove, going 5-0-1 in their past six. Way too late to make a run to the postseason, but do you think this makes GM Bob Murray rethink his plan come the trade deadline or beyond that to the June draft?

LeBrun: It’s funny, I spoke to one GM Tuesday who believes Murray’s blasting of his team a few weeks ago and threatening to trade nearly everyone on his roster was designed to wake up his core players. This GM doesn’t actually think Murray is that interested in trading away half his team. Still, if the Ducks miss the playoffs -- as it looks as though they almost surely will short of a miraculous run -- Murray will need to take a serious look at the flaws on his team and determine what needs to be done. Although I do believe he’ll make a move or two before Feb. 27, I think that, if he chooses to make a blockbuster, it’ll be in the offseason, when more teams can be involved in the discussion. For now, I’ll just enjoy seeing Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf light up the lamp because I have them in our media fantasy league, Scotty.

Until tomorrow.