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Senators seeking more production from top line

by Dave Lozo /

KANATA, Ott. -- Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek were the Ottawa Senators' two most-productive forwards during the regular season, combining for 69 goals in 157 games.

During the first three games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the New York Rangers, however, the duo has been almost invisible. Spezza and Michalek have combined for two assists, both of which came during Game 1 after the contest had long since been decided.

The Senators trail the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series 2-1 with Game 4 set for Wednesday night at Scotiabank Place. All three games have been tightly contested, but the Senators' top line that has featured Spezza and Michalek along with a cavalcade of third parties throughout the series has been mostly ineffective.

Spezza and Michalek had just four shots in a 1-0 loss in Game 3, and Spezza knows the difference between winning and losing a series and a low-scoring game like that can be how the top line produces.

"It's been a tight series offensively," said Spezza, whose team has five goals in three games. "We've had success when our line's scored. We've worked real hard and created a lot of chances, but we haven't scored. We definitely feel if we can get going offensively and get it started next game, it can kind of springboard to everybody scoring and getting confidence.

"As an offensive guy, you definitely feel the brunt of the pressure when you come off a shutout in a playoff game. You just try to work at it and do better next game."


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The dip in their play isn't a big one, but in the postseason, everything is magnified. After averaging about six shots per game in the regular season, they have combined for a little more than four per game against the Rangers. Spezza is right around his average of three shots per game, but the quality of chances for the most part hasn’t been there.

The problem was exacerbated during Game 3 with captain Daniel Alfredsson out of the lineup. The Senators generated 39 shots on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, but none found the back of the net. Spezza and Michalek's line was close to scoring several times, something Paul MacLean finds encouraging, but in a series when one goal can make a difference, close isn't cutting it.

"They're close, so that's good," MacLean said. "The Rangers are checking very close. It's a time of year when things happen real fast, and you don't get the time and space that maybe you'd like to have. We need to create a little more of that time and space, and maybe do things a little bit quicker to create those opportunities when they're there."

The loss of Alfredsson also allows the Rangers to focus their best defenders against the Senators' top line. Defenseman Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh have been the constants throughout the series, but during the first two games with Alfredsson in the lineup, the Rangers seemed less inclined to get Brian Boyle's checking line on the ice against Spezza's line.

During Game 3, that changed somewhat, with Boyle's line with Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko used more frequently against Spezza's line. For Spezza, that added attention is nothing new and not an excuse for failing to score.

"Even in the first game with Alfie in the lineup, I saw Girardi and McDonagh and Boyle's line most times anyways and we dealt with that all year," Spezza said. "All year, we've gone against the other team's top defensive pairing and checking line. It's not something that's out of the ordinary, to see the same guys over and over. If anything, it gives me time to adjust and change a few things in how we're going to attack the zone.

"They've done a good job. The whole team has. They collapse five guys back. There's not a heck of a lot of room out there. We've tried to score ugly goals by throwing pucks to the net from the corners and getting tips. We just have to be better on our second chances. There's not a lot of empty ice out there for 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s."

"Everybody's had a shot playing against them at different times during the series, but probably the biggest thing is Girardi and McDonagh," Rangers center Brad Richards said. "They're a good d-pair and they face top guys all year. They're out there the most."

Girardi and McDonagh were among the League leaders in ice time during the regular season, and that hasn't changed during the postseason. Girardi ranks fifth at 27:36 per game; McDonagh is 17th at 25:42 per game.

The defensive duo has done it with physical play and the willingness to get in front of any and all shots. Girardi leads the League in blocked shots with 17 while McDonagh is tied for ninth with eight.

The Rangers' recipe for success all season has been letting Girardi and McDonagh shut down the other team's top lines, allowing the Rangers to win the battle offensively with other units on the ice. It worked to perfection in Game 3.

"They've been doing a really good job," Lundqvist said. "They're a really skilled line and they can make a lot of good plays. You can't give them too much room, too much respect. I think both 'G' and McDonagh have just been playing their game, playing physical, playing smart."

"They've been huge," Boyle said. "The minutes they play, it's crazy."

The pressure is on Spezza and Michalek to provide the scoring punch with Alfredsson potentially out again for Game 4. MacLean doesn't see that as anything they can't handle.

"I don't know if it's more pressure," MacLean said. "That pressure is there for them every day. They just have to continue to play, and push themselves to continue to play hard."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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