Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals resumes tonight in sunny California, but for Ottawa the it's not so much the Ducks they have to be worried about - it's the crows waiting for the dead to fall.
Is it all doom and gloom if you're a Sens fan? Of course not, but getting this far and seeing your team out-matched in every possible area raises areas for concern. Out-matched and...out-classed? Pronger cast a dark shadow over the series after his blatant intent-to-injure elbow on one of the classiest players in the league, Dean McAmmond, but after Daniel Alfredsson shot the puck 'by accident' at Ducks captain Scott Neidermayer, all is forgotten and suddenly it's the Sens that look like amateurs.
But how can you possibly write about being out-matched without talking about why. The Ducks deserve all the credit in the world. They have an awesome checking line and a powerful, (and more importantly) young second line. Mix that with the veteran presence of Selanne and the hulking, yet mobile blueliners the Ducks possess and suddenly the reasons spill out as to why the Sens took it this far and then ran into a brick wall (literally).
Is the East a weaker conference? We're definitely no where near as close to being as physical as the West, at least not the Ducks - and don't expect this to change anytime soon. Would the checking line of the Ducks have shut down Crosby? Yes. The top line of the Sabres. Check. In fact, I think the Sabres would all be hospitalized by now. So what does a team from the East do to compete?
Not too much in my humble opinion. As far as the Ottawa Senators go, there are subtle changes that need to be made. I personally am very proud of them and would like to see the entire team kept intact, but there has to come a time when changes need to happen for this team to advance and win a Stanley Cup. In this series, we've seen that having the best line in the NHL counts for very little unless your depth is good enough to balance things out. I would consider trading Redden for the right second line player. San Jose has been looking for this type of defenseman for quite some time, could a Redden for Marleau trade be in the works? How about Grier? How about signing a free agent or two (Gomez has singled out Ottawa as a place he'd like to play, Andy Sutton is a big, hulking shot blocking D-man who would fit into Ottawa's plans perfectly, Gary Roberts would be a natural on the top line with Heatley and good friend Spezza).
How about Peter Schaefer? Tell me the Sens couldn't replace him in a heartbeat. In fact, how about Roberts replacing him right away? Or if you look inside the Sens system you'll see that Foligno is coming up fast, but until he's ready Patrick Eaves.
It's not too much change, and the changes would be seamless. A top tier second line player would fit in like a glove with Fisher. Suddenly it would feel like the weight of the world was lifted off his shoulders, and we all know in Ottawa that he can be a mean winger if need be. Brian Murray had the 'top line' split up for half the year anyway, so slipping Alfie down to the second line with Fisher and the new center wouldn't take much adapting. Same applies if Gary Roberts can slip in on the top line with Spezza and Heatley. The checking line would look even nicer if Vermette, Kelly and McAmmond were all together as well. All of this leaves Mike Comrie to sign with another team, which disappoints me, but the free cap space could certainly be used in other areas.
Losing Redden and replacing him with another shutdown D-man could be the hardest transition, but it is absolutely needed if the Sens are to offer long term contracts to the big two up front.
Now that the business of what has to happen in the off season is out of the way....if you live in Ottawa and experienced this year, you'll know what I mean when I say how proud I am of these guys. They all grew, they all learned what it takes, they all played their hearts out. Some where rewarded (Volchenkov, Phillips) others will be sacrificed (Redden, Schaefer, Gerber), but none of them let us down. Think back if you will to the beginning of the season. Did anyone give us a chance. No. Now that we're here, we're here for a while. And I'll tell you, being around the festivities and seeing how other uber-fans are reacting - this team should hold its head high. You've been awesome guys, win or lose (which seems the most obvious), you have a lot to build on and have learned a lot of valuable lessons.
The last lesson may have been: Get some more experience at the forward position, preferably someone who's won a Cup before so we don't have to watch as our Captain 'accidentally' declares his team not ready to win the Big Prize.
Congratulations in advance to the Ducks. Even if the Sens rattled off three straight, you still woke the Eastern Conference up at the very least. You are a force and a powerful one and you certainly deserve what's coming.
I'm the biggest fan in the world, but I'm a realist. Still...Go Sens!