OTTAWA - The two players almost every Senators fan wanted out of town in October are now the two players Sens supporters can’t wait to see back in the lineup.
Filip Kuba and Sergei Gonchar were being booed by the hometown crowd at Scotiabank Place just a few short months ago. Kuba has bounced back nicely from last season, which started with him breaking a leg and just got worse from there. The 34-year-old Czech had his worst season as a pro in 2010-11, finishing a whopping minus-26 with just two goals in 64 games.
Many NHL observers, including me, doubted last spring that Kuba even belonged in the league any more. The 6-foot-3 defenceman has proven us wrong, which made his recent shoulder injury all the more frustrating.
Kuba will never be the physical banger everyone thinks he should be, but for my money he had been playing his best hockey as a Senator before getting hurt. Erik Karlsson is having an all-star-calibre season, but has had some tough nights of late. It’s no coincidence the young Swede’s play has slid a little since his steady defence partner Kuba’s injury.
Gonchar, like Kuba, was having a stellar bounceback season before falling awkwardly into the boards Thursday night. The Russian’s ability to move the puck quickly and efficiently out of his own end, along with his poise with the puck and excellent patience on the power play, are big reasons why the Senators have been one of the big surprises in the Eastern Conference so far. Gonchar looks to be enjoying the game again, and it has showed in his play.
Both Kuba and Gonchar took a lot of heat last season and rightfully so, but they deserve credit for their strong and consistent play in helping this season’s Senators climb into the playoff hunt. While not what fans wanted to see, their recent injuries will create opportunities for Brian Lee and David Rundblad to play bigger roles, which is never a bad thing when you are trying to develop a young defence corps.
There will be some growing pains with Gonchar and Kuba out of the lineup. In the long run, however, their injuries could be a good thing for the club by helping speed the development of Rundblad in particular and by giving Lee a much-needed boost of confidence.
Along with solid blue-line play from veterans such as Kuba and Gonchar, the Senators are getting inspired coaching from Paul MacLean.
MacLean played a hunch and looked like a genius when he sent Zack Smith out for a rare power-play appearance late against the Jets last week and Smith potted the game-winner. Thursday night against the Devils, MacLean went with his gut again and tried the rookie Rundblad in the shootout — only this time, his gamble didn’t pay off. Coaches aren’t always going to be right when they play a hunch, but as a former NHLer, I can appreciate a guy who’s not afraid to stick his neck out and go against conventional thinking once in a while.