TORONTO – Ironically, it was the one Mike Condon couldn’t stop that inspired him to seal his third consecutive win and a perfect six-point road trip, each of those hard-earned victories coming against a club in playoff position.
When Maple Leafs rookie Mitchell Marner changed speeds and nearly stopped the puck before beating the Ottawa Senators goaltender in Saturday night’s shootout, Condon was furious. The goal was reviewed and upheld, ticking Condon off enough that he made damn sure to snuff out the Leafs’ next two shooters, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, and snatch a two-point swing for his new team.
“In my eyes, [Marner] stopped his forward progress. I thought the puck went back,” said Condon, improving to 13-7-3 as a Senator. “I was fired up, and it ended up helping me. I wanted the next shot even more.
“A little fire. It’s one-on-one, a competition between you versus another guy. One-on-one, you get lower, you grip your stick, you grind your teeth, and you just fight for that one shot.”
Charged with the Herculean task of filling Carey Price’s crease last season for an often-disinterested Montreal Canadiens group, Condon and his .921 save percentage are largely responsible for keeping the Senators’ playoff fire burning. And to think: all he cost was a fifth-round pick to Pittsburgh.
“We definitely didn’t expect him to do as well as he has. He’s been bailing us out, winning us games,” says captain Erik Karlsson. “And a lot in a row. He doesn’t get many days off. Hats off, and hopefully we can keep the streak going.”
Craig Anderson, Ottawa’s No. 1 goalie entering the season, has taken an absence from the team as his wife, Nicolle, undergoes chemotherapy treatments. Andrew Hammond, who still has another year on his contract, has battled injury and pucks; he has an .855 save percentage in four appearances. And 22-year-old prospect Chris Driedger is a last resort.
So we see a $575,000 goalie defeating Edmonton, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Columbus, and Toronto in his past five outings. There’s a chance he plays Sunday night, back-to-back, against the Blue Jackets.
“The reality is, we never expected [Anderson] to miss two months straight,” said coach Guy Boucher. “Now [Condon] is proving that he’s got great character. Look again today—that shootout goal. He could’ve had a mental block or weakness, and it was the opposite. He stayed strong, and that’s been the mark of our team.”
The Sens waited until the 58th minute to tie the game in Toronto, then some shootout heroics from the unlikely Tom Pyatt, secretly a whiz in practice. As is customary for the NHL’s 25th-ranked possession team, the Sens were bested in shots (33-27) and attempted shots (49-40 five-on-five), took bad penalties, and yet they won, again.
Karlsson says the guys never allow each other to get frustrated on the bench. Strangely, morale is high, despite Anderson’s absence, the worrisome underlying stats, and confirmation that winger Clarke MacArthur will not play this season.
“I was told last summer, if we lose MacArthur again, we’re not making these playoffs,” Boucher says.
Even with a top-six weapon on indefinite IR, Boucher believes the Sens have given themselves a chance to win every game, save their 5-1 thumping in Anaheim on Dec. 11. They do it by always clogging the neutral zone and often boring spectators. System them to submission, and rely on Condon to outduel the guy at the other end.
“There wasn’t much room out there for either team, so it was more of a grind-and-work game,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said post-game. “If you want to be fancy, it’s a different game you’re playing at.”
Armed with more salary cap space than most, rookie GM Pierre Dorion will hunt for a scoring winger between now and Feb. 29 for another pesky push. (Quick thought: Would Detroit trade Thomas Vanek within division?) In Condon, he’s already made this season’s most impactful trade. Now it’s the offence that needs a jolt.
“We knew it was a long shot to get [MacArthur] back. The team we have now is doing really good, we’re playing the system we have really well. Just battling. We are where we are for a reason,” Karlsson says.
“If we end up getting someone else, hopefully it’ll be for the better. If not, this is the group we have. Everybody fights for each other. You can put anyone out there, and if you look at ice time, it’s fairly equal all the way around.”
The defenceman doesn’t seem concerned that only one Eastern Conference team (New Jersey) is getting fewer pucks on net.
“We want to work on our offensive zone, but we gotta get pucks in there and people in there. In this day and age, it’s a lot of bad goals that get scored,” Karlsson says. “That’s the way you score in this league.”
Those predicting an Ottawa downfall can also point to a treacherous second-half calendar, in which nine of their final 12 games come on the road and back-to-backs await in bunches.
“There’s no rest in this schedule,” says Condon. “It’s going to make us a lot stronger.”
Not three months on the job, the goalie gluing this group together gushes about his teammates and the systems they employ.
“We work hard and never give up, so it’s been a lot of fun,” Condon says. “I love this organization.”
The feeling, we’re sure, is mutual.