For trailblazers, NHL's Senators are the team to follow


November 29, 2005|By CHILDS WALKER

This column will take the form of a public service announcement: If you like to watch great sports teams or are just a fan of people who do things well, start following the Ottawa Senators.

I know, I know. An understanding of hockey just isn't in the water in these parts. I don't have it either. But trust me, this is the great pro sports team nobody in this country is talking about.

The Colts? Sure they're undefeated, but they're overexposed. The Pistons and the Spurs? The class of the NBA perhaps, but neither has a terrific offense and both have lost to the Wizards. The White Sox? Come on, you wouldn't even bet anything important that they'll be back in the playoffs next year.

If you like dominance, the Sens are where it's at.

I spent some days recently working on a piece about the general state of the NHL. But as I glanced over the beefed-up scoring statistics, I kept getting distracted ... by how incredibly good the Senators seemed to be. Since I don't watch much hockey, I thought the statistics might be misleading.

But then I mentioned the Senators during an interview with ESPN hockey analyst John Buccigross. He effused for 10 minutes before I could slip in another word. Creative forwards, gritty defensemen, depth, speed, coaching - this team had it all, he assured me.

So I, a hockey agnostic, began scanning the ESPNEWS ticker every night, just to see if the Senators would fall off.

They didn't. In fact, they haven't lost since I started paying attention.

In college, my buddies and I played EA Sports' NHL video games incessantly. You could play a whole season with the same team, and if you got good enough, your players dominated the statistical charts to a ludicrous degree. I mean, my third-line center was among the top 10 scoring leaders.

That's kind of like what Ottawa is doing to the NHL statistical charts.

The 18-3 Senators are outscoring opponents by 2.52 goals a game. The next best, Detroit, is outscoring opponents by 1.1 goals a game. Three teams don't even average 2.52 goals a game.

Three of the league's top five scorers are Senators. The top five in plus-minus rating are Senators. Dominik Hasek, the 40-year-old goalie who may be the most famous Senator, leads the league in goals-against average.

Ottawa is the capital of Canada and a cosmopolitan place of freeways, universities and museums. But vis-M-`-vis the American sporting scene, it might as well be on Pluto. It's cold enough. Snow, more than 100 inches of it in an average winter, covers the ground from November until April. So in a sense, it's amazing the city didn't get back its NHL team until 1992 (the Stanley Cup was born there and an earlier incarnation of the Senators played between 1917 and 1934).

As franchises were shaping up for this season, they pulled a bold move, trading an excellent young playmaker, Marian Hossa, for Dany Heatley, a gifted winger best known for crashing his Ferrari in an accident that killed then-Atlanta teammate Dan Snyder.

But the move has proved golden. Heatley has at least a point in every regular-season game and leads the league in plus-minus margin. His mate on the right wing, Daniel Alfredsson, ranks third in the league in goals and is tied for first in scoring. They have achieved a quick symbiosis with center Jason Spezza, who at 22, may be among a generation of great creators that includes Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.

So Ottawa has a fearsome offense. If the Senators maintain their pace, they'd finish with 383 goals, more than any team in 18 years.

Ottawa is the rare team that dominates the whole ice. Take the Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers of the 1980s, maybe the last hockey dynasty. They played a racehorse style that allowed them to outscore everyone but left them vulnerable to being scored upon.

And as a colleague pointed out, they have a cool logo, a Roman soldier's helm that jibes with the imperial butt-whuppings this team is handing out.

So if you want to get on the ground floor of something awesome, memorize the names Spezza, Heatley, Alfredsson and Wade Redden and start watching that ticker. These guys don't seem like they're going to lose often.

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