OTTAWA – The season could have ended right here, right now.
Done and buried.
Were it not for a 6-on-5 goal scored with Craig Anderson on the bench last weekend, and another here on a heart-stopping Saturday afternoon, we would be writing obituaries about the 2016-17 Ottawa Senators.
Instead, after those heroics and the pair of overtime winners that followed, we are talking about a team that is now one win away from eliminating the New York Rangers and advancing to the Eastern Conference final. What a swing of emotion.
“This is why you play hockey,” said Ottawa centre Kyle Turris, who capped a whale of a game by sliding the puck under Henrik Lundqvist’s left pad in the fourth period for a 5-4 win.
Much ink will surely be spilled on the decision to insert veteran agitator Chris Neil into the lineup – he played 2:26 and negated a potential power play while dressing for just the second time in 69 days – but it’s the Senators’ ability to execute with their net empty that deserves the most credit for an unlikely 3-2 series advantage.
They have essentially been playing from behind the Rangers since the get-go, leading for a grand total of 13:10 across five games.
Trailing 4-3 on Saturday, Derick Brassard hopped off the bench when Anderson was pulled with 95 seconds left in regulation. He skated directly into the offensive zone, whacked a rebound out of the air and watched it pinball off three Rangers defenders and in.
“We’ve been talking about all the rebounds with Lundqvist,” said Brassard. “Everything high, it’s coming in front. I was just coming from the bench with some speed, I just went in the slot there and I just batted it out of the air and I got lucky.”
The play bore resemblance to the one that saw Jean-Gabriel Pageau tie Game 2 late. Both started with Erik Karlsson controlling the puck on the right point and finding a teammate through coverage with a cross-ice pass that was promptly sent at the net for a tip.
Ottawa scored just two goals in 6-on-5 situations during the entire regular season, with coach Guy Boucher at one point showing his players a clip of an announcer chiding them for passing it around the perimeter and not taking any shots.
His message was heard.
The adjustment that accompanied the video session is responsible for Ottawa pulling two games out of the fire in this second-round series.
“I don’t think it’s good when you’re trying to be pretty and you’re looking for extra stuff, which we did most of the year on some of those instances,” said Boucher. “You can see the puck go left and right, up and down, left and right, and then there’s a minute left and nobody shot.
“We got rid of that and our players have been able to put pucks on net. You need a little bit of luck and you need presence (around their goalie) and we had both today.”
What they also had was a full team effort after two dispiriting losses at Madison Square Garden.
There were basically no passengers for the home side.
Mark Stone looked back to his old self after a couple so-so outings and scored an important goal with the Sens trailing 2-0 early. Karlsson was a beast – stop us if you’ve heard that one before – after missing the third period of Game 4 due to injury, logging a game-high 31:09 and picking up three assists in the process.
Clarke MacArthur, Bobby Ryan and Mike Hoffman were all generating in the offensive zone.
Brassard’s tying goal was his first of the series. Turris picked up his second in as many games off the rush to end an overtime that saw Ottawa finish ahead 6-0 on the shots counter.
“Everybody felt like themselves again,” said Karlsson.
“You just try to wear the other team down and eventually they will go in,” added Turris.
It was a pretty strong statement from a Senators team trying to advance past the second round for the first time in a decade. Few, if anyone, was picking them to be in this position as recently as three weeks ago.
Some even wrote them off following the back-to-back 4-1 losses to New York in Games 3 and 4 – flat performances which Brassard acknowledged left players feeling “frustrated.”
“I think we were a little too tight there,” he said. “A little too serious.”
With the game on the line at Canadian Tire Centre, they were laser-focused and executing. The air had come out of the building when Jimmy Vesey put the Rangers ahead with less than eight minutes left, diving to knock a puck that Anderson gloved on the wrong side of the goal-line.
But the belief never wavered on the home bench.
“We never let down,” said Brassard. “The message, even when they scored their fourth goal on the bench, all of the coaches, players, everyone stayed positive: ‘We have seven minutes to have a chance to tie the game.’
“And we found a way. We showed a lot of character.”
And so, they play on.