OTTAWA — Call it the appetizer.
The first of three games in eight days between the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens gave fans on both sides of the rivalry a taste of what’s to come. It featured tight checking, great goaltending, and high drama brought on by wild momentum swings.
We expected a match between bitter rivals—with two crucial points in the race to the top of the Atlantic Division hanging in the balance—to resemble a playoff game. What we got was something close but not quite on the level of a spring contest; something that ended in a way no playoff game will end—with the shootout being exclusive to regular-season hockey.
And maybe we hyped it up a bit too much. Maybe the Senators did, too.
“I thought we were a little nervous,” said Senators coach Guy Boucher. “Everybody’s getting excited for first place [in the division], and I keep saying it’s not a positive thing. It’s a match where we’re trying to play our best so we shouldn’t be changing our focus. Focusing on the division doesn’t help us. We want to make the playoffs, no matter who we’re playing.”
The Senators weren’t quite on the level through the first 30 minutes, with the Canadiens taking a 1-0 lead and a decisive edge in play by notching 22 of the first 34 shots recorded.
But the tide turned just over two minutes later, when a slashing penalty put Ottawa on the power play.
“Once we scored the first goal the players started to breathe and they started to make plays and we turned the momentum,” said Boucher.
A late tying goal from Senators captain Erik Karlsson got his team’s fans out of the seats and made the score a reflection of how tightly the game was contested.
By the end of a frantic overtime that saw quality chances exchanged at both ends, Montreal held a 32-31 advantage in shots and a 22-16 edge in blocks, while Ottawa led 30-26 in hits and won 61 per cent of the faceoffs.
But it wouldn’t be altogether true to say this game featured the type of sacrifice you see in the playoffs. It wasn’t a go-through-a-wall, block-a-shot-with-your-face-if-you-have-to effort that makes the race for the Stanley Cup a must-watch event every year.
“Playoffs—I know what it is; I’ve lived it to the seventh game of the conference finals,” said Boucher of his experience behind the bench of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011. “It’s something different than this.”
“I thought the start of the game was physical,” he said. “But then hockey kinda took over.”
The Canadiens pressed the issue, the Senators blocked things up with a five-man trap in the neutral zone, and the pace suffered at times.
But there was still plenty of drama to it.
It began with Craig Anderson making a surprise start in goal after missing Ottawa’s last two games and being considered questionable to get the call in either of this weekend’s contests.
It ended with most of the 19,531 people in attendance on the edge of their seats—if not jumping right out of them—when Byron, who hails from Ottawa, charged in as Montreal’s first shooter in the shootout and pushed the puck from backhand to his forehand before beating Anderson on the blocker side.
Radulov offered insurance after Price stopped an attempt by Turris. It was Radulov’s fourth goal in five shootout attempts this season—this one a quick wrist shot over Anderson’s left shoulder.
“What happened was exactly what every hockey expert would’ve thought of,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “A real tight game [between] two teams that are playing well, [with] lots of confidence, and playing for top spot.”
The Canadiens maintained their hold on it, taking a two-point advantage in the standings over Ottawa leading into Sunday’s game, which will be played at the Bell Centre.
Things are going to heat up from here. There’s no doubt about it.
When asked if the animosity between his Senators and the Canadiens was building, Brassard acknowledged it was.
“The next two games [against each other] obviously mean a lot in our seasons,” he said. “They make their push, we make ours, and it’s just two really good hockey teams going at it. It’s fun to be part of those games.”
Bring on the main course and dessert.