OTTAWA – The prize is great. The chance to play for a Stanley Cup.
As for the journey?
“It’s a hard series,” Senators forward Clarke MacArthur said Friday of the dead-locked Eastern Conference Final. “The hits are getting vicious out there and there’s some big plays happening. You’ve got to pay the price if you want to win.”
Facing a Game 4 they absolutely needed, the Penguins dug in. They withstood an early surge before building a 3-0 lead on the strength of special teams, and managed to get through the final 26-plus minutes despite missing yet one more defenceman.
Weeks of hockey at its highest level weighs an exacting a toll on both sides.
It was almost comical – unless you were one of the players slogging through the mud – and with Pittsburgh earning a 3-2 victory to tie the series 2-2 it was a reminder that this is basically down to a war of attrition now.
Best two-out-of-three for a ticket to the Cup final, with the caveat that you may have to crawl through nails to get there.
“It’s a physical grind,” said Senators fourth-liner Tom Pyatt. “It’s a mental grind, too. I know for me personally it’s 90-something games – I missed a few in the playoffs – so it’s a lot of hockey, but it’s an exciting spot to be in.
“This is where you want to be right now at this time of year.”
The Penguins have more stars and more pedigree, but they’re also more beat up. Chad Ruhwedel suffered a concussion on a hit from Ryan in the second period and could leave the Penguins short three defencemen for Game 5, pending Justin Schultz’s status.
Pittsburgh is also without wingers Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust.
The situation is a little more rosy on the Senators side, where only Alex Burrows is injured to the degree he can’t play. Karlsson has been skating on a two hairline fractures in his left heel and indicated that his brief absence in Game 4 was due to a skate issue.
“If we were losing guys, there’s no way we could compete against those guys,” said Senators coach Guy Boucher. “We know their depth, we know they’re a quality team, and the star power they’ve got. They’ve got the most star power in the league. If we would lose guys, we wouldn’t be able to compete against them.”
As it is, we certainly have a series.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan played a big card on Friday by starting Matt Murray in place of Marc-Andre Fleury – it was Fleury who backstopped Pittsburgh to its first nine victories this spring – and the decision paid off.
Ottawa brought good pressure in the opening minutes, but Murray stopped Mike Hoffman from the high slot and Viktor Stalberg on a wraparound attempt. He then kicked out his right pad while already in the splits to rob Brassard.
In the final minutes, after Pyatt had got Ottawa back to 3-2 down, the Penguins were under siege. Murray stopped two shots after Craig Anderson went to the Senators bench for an extra attacker and saw teammates Nick Bonino and Brian Dumoulin lay out to block two more.
The Penguins looked exhausted as they celebrated after the final buzzer. The Senators lamented not finding a little extra juice earlier in the game.
“They go up 3-0, I don’t know how many times you’re coming back from that,” said MacArthur. “It’s a real uphill climb and it doesn’t help the system we play and the way we want to play. We need to keep the games closer.”
To their credit, the sellout crowd at Canadian Tire Centre chanted “Go Sens Go!” as the home team left the ice. They recognized how much the players had emptied the tanks.
The Senators have held Pittsburgh to just six goals through four games in this series and now have legitimate designs on stretching this surprising playoff run into June. With only 40 hours to rest, recover and travel before puck drop on Sunday afternoon, both sides will have to try and summon a little more resolve.
There is no doubt they’re in a real struggle now.
“Win or lose, there’s always another night until there’s four [wins],” said Anderson. “It doesn’t matter if you play good or you play bad, you still have to look forward and you’re only as good as you are tomorrow.”
Off we go back to Pittsburgh for Game 5.
Don’t forget to pack the Band-Aids, painkillers and ice packs.