PITTSBURGH – It’s finally safe for Bobby Ryan to go to the grocery store again.
To see the Ottawa Senators winger now, you’d never know just how deep his struggles ran this year. The same guy who ended Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final with a lovely overtime goal was once so down on himself that he was reluctant to venture out of the house.
Everything started to turn when he came back from an upper-body injury and scored on the final day of the regular season. In these playoffs, he’s been a revelation with 11 points in 13 games so far. The past is almost forgotten.
“It’s a refresh, I think, for me,” Ryan said after Saturday’s 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. “I think it was a complete restart. … I think that you just want to redeem yourself, right? You let yourself down. You let your teammates down and everybody around you.
“Now I’m getting to, I guess, redeem myself a little bit. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
He has scored two of the six overtime goals for these Cinderella Senators in the playoffs.
Who would have thought that?
They arrived here as a big underdog to the defending Stanley Cup champions and proceeded to bottle them up for 54 minutes. Even after Evgeni Malkin tied it late, unleashing the growing tension inside PPG Paints Arena and forcing overtime, Ottawa held steady.
Ryan created tons of daylight by chipping the puck past Bryan Rust high in the Senators zone and then managed to skate around defenceman Olli Maatta before beating Marc-Andre Fleury with a backhand deke at 4:59.
“A little turnover, an opportunity, and we were able to capitalize,” said teammate Clarke MacArthur. “Great for Bobby.”
He is, perhaps, the poster boy for a 1-3-1 defensive system the Senators have affectionately labelled the “Kanata Wall.”
It was introduced by new coach Guy Boucher this season and took some time to be fully embraced by the players. For Ryan, a four-time 30-goal man, it occasionally felt like he was being asked to spend the entire game in the neutral zone – far away from the areas of the ice where he is most dangerous.
The veteran winger managed just 13 goals in 62 regular-season games, finally finding a measure of comfort in “Game 82” of Ottawa’s schedule.
“It took me longer than most,” said Ryan. “I had a tough year with the learning curve. I had some growing pains with it, and I think that’s evident. I think everyone is well aware of that.”
By now, with the Senators on the other side of the playoff mountain and improbably seven wins away from lifting the Stanley Cup, there is a complete buy-in from everyone.
Just as captain Erik Karlsson embraced taking shorter shifts and blocking more shots, Ryan stopped cheating for offence. In fact, he earned the most praise from teammates last round by splaying out to block a couple shots in the clincher against the New York Rangers.
“Not with our system,” Ryan replied. “No, I’m not getting caught with that one. When it’s a 50-50 (battle for the puck), I’m going on the defensive side.”
And yet it was because of well-timed pressure from him and linemate Jean-Gabriel Pageau that Ottawa opened the scoring on Saturday. Ryan forced Penguins defenceman Brian Dumoulin into a turnover behind the net and found Pageau in front with a ridiculous behind-the-back pass.
You might not have believed your eyes except for the fact they’d connected on a goal against the Rangers that was eerily similar.
“It happened against New York so that’s why I stayed there,” said Pageau. “Obviously, I think you need really good vision and a lot of talent to make that pass. I don’t think I could make that pass.
“He’s almost on the other side of the net.”
It came after the 14-minute mark of a first period where the Senators took four minor penalties. Once they killed those off – credit goalie Craig Anderson plus a post and a crossbar – Ottawa slowly squeezed the life out of the game at even strength, controlling 59 per cent of shot attempts.
It was not what you’d expect from the Penguins. Their performance isn’t likely to be repeated in Game 2 on Monday.
“I’m so reluctant to say anything good because you’re playing against world-class players,” said Senators defenceman Marc Methot. “If you give them any little opportunity, and God knows they may get a couple points next game … Did I think we did a good job today? Yes.
“But I mean that’s one game and I’m not in any position to say that we shut anyone down.”
However, they found a way. Just like they have all season.
It has been a year of tremendous adversity for several members of the Senators family and Ryan is among them. He lost his mother, Melody, to liver cancer last summer and then endured the on-ice struggles that followed.
It’s been a tough go.
But he, like they, persevered and Boucher believes all of those challenging moments “helped build the soul of the team.”
Wouldn’t you know it, Ryan was there to score the next biggest goal of the season.
“He’s been doing a lot of things for our team,” said Dion Phaneuf. “Sacrificing, blocking shots, playing hard and it’s great to see him get rewarded again.
“I love Bobby on our team. I’ll tell you that.”