Improbable Senators earn one more crack at Penguins with Game 6 win

Mike Hoffman scored the winning goal and the Ottawa Senators defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins to force Game 7.

OTTAWA – "Why not us?" Bobby Ryan had asked of the Ottawa Senators.

Why not, indeed.

It is a group that has been doubted and questioned. A team criticized for playing a boring style that was basically pronounced dead after taking a 7-0 shellacking from the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday afternoon.

That prompted an emotional meeting between games where some grievances were aired. Erik Karlsson spoke, and so did a few other veterans. The players emerged from the room believing they were going to win Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final.

And they did.

"That was the talk around here," said Mike Hoffman, who scored the winner in Tuesday’s 2-1 thriller. "It was: ‘We’re winning this hockey game, no matter how or what.’ I mean we were coming out here and we were going to win and we did that.

"It’s a great group of guys in here, obviously you’ve got to have something special to make it this far in the playoffs, and everyone stepped up tonight."

They needed Craig Anderson’s brilliance and he was brilliant. Anderson stopped a season-high 45 shots, including 22 in the second period, which ended up being a game-turning stretch where Ottawa was under siege and escaped down just 1-0.

Outside of the shot disparity, this was the sort of game coach Guy Boucher had asked for. He wants his team to stay patient and wait around for its chance.

It arrived in the form of a 5-on-3 power play that stretched out for more than a minute. The Senators had been dreadful in those situations – riding an 0-for-30 run that dated back to the second round – but Ryan ended that, along with a shutout streak of 98:16 for Matt Murray, with a well-placed wrist shot.

He was way outside on the left side of the ice, not usually a dangerous scoring area, but had a quick release after taking a slap pass from Kyle Turris.

"It’s amazing what not holding on to the puck will do," said Ryan. "You just try to find a lane, try and find something. Really a lucky goal. To see it go in, I think we – we, in the sense of the community, took a collective breath there because it was overdue."

It was bedlam.

Boucher had urged his team to adopt a defensive mindset following the Game 5 debacle – "instead of reinventing the wheel, we’ve just got to stick to our strengths," he said after the morning skate – but they spent the last minute before the second intermission ominously hemmed in their own zone.

The even-strength shot attempts were 40-21 in Pittsburgh’s favour. The score was 1-1, but they were in tough.

Then the third period started and the Senators put on a press. Fredrik Claesson, an unheralded defenceman with 62 games of NHL experience, carried the puck across the Stanley Cup logo painted in the offensive zone and dished the puck to Hoffman.

He kept skating right into Penguins defenceman Ron Hainsey, like a ship crashing into an iceberg, as Hoffman hammered a shot that pinged loudly off the right post and rocketed into the top of the net.

"I paused for a second just to give him a little bit more time to clear that lane for the far side," said Hoffman. "Obviously, Murray didn’t see it."

Claesson was all smiles afterwards. Asked how it felt to force a Game 7 in this series, he replied: "Oh it’s great. I just want to dab."

Then he let out a laugh from the bottom of his belly.

You see, this can be fun. Even through the stress and the exhaustion and the ups and downs, the playoffs offer these fleeting moments of satisfaction.

The Senators had earned the right to feel good after surviving the final 18:26 with that lead. They needed Anderson to deny the ever-dangerous Phil Kessel with less than a minute to go. They lived to fight another day.

"Nothing is accomplished yet," Karlsson warned. "We have a long way to go. This is our last chance to achieve something great."

They still need to go to Pittsburgh and win a game on Thursday night. The Nashville Predators are home with their feet up and waiting for an opponent to book its ticket to the Stanley Cup Final. There is really no time to catch your breath.

What stands out here is the fact the Senators came together at a time when they could have splintered apart. There were some frayed wires after they dropped Games 4 and 5 to the Penguins.

"The meeting, it was necessary," said veteran centre Zach Smith. "You have a 7-0 loss, you’re not just going to go ahead business as usual. You’ve got to kind of reassess a bit."

"The guys are fighters, and they choose to fight," added Boucher. "They don’t choose to bail out. They don’t choose to freeze. They choose to fight. That’s something they’ve developed individually and as a team, and that’s why we’re still here."

No one on the outside would have believed it possible. At the start of the season or even at the start of these playoffs.

The Sens, though? They’ve believed all along.

"We bought ourselves two more days together," said Ryan. "This team just wants to be around each other. It’s exciting."

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