OTTAWA – Here lies an opportunity among the blooming tulips and endless construction sites dotting our nation’s capital.
It’s the sort of thing that comes around maybe once in a decade, if you’re lucky, especially as a small-market, budget-conscious team.
The Ottawa Senators have a realistic path to the Stanley Cup Final.
After splitting two games to open the third round against Pittsburgh, the notion of scaling that mountain is not as daunting as it once was. The Penguins are talent-laden and experienced, but they aren’t currently on the same level as the group that lifted the Cup last June.
"It’s tough to play like this," Evgeni Malkin told reporters before leaving Pittsburgh on Tuesday afternoon, referencing Ottawa’s knack for making available ice disappear.
"Two games you score two goals, it’s not easy. You want to score more."
Against the odds, the window is open here for the Senators to sneak through.
They could help their cause in a big way by taking care of business on home ice starting with Game 3 on Wednesday night. Ottawa will certainly need to generate more than the meagre 29 even-strength shot attempts it managed in Monday’s 1-0 loss – its sixth-lowest total in 96 games this season.
However, the Senators should feel good about the manner in which they limited Pittsburgh’s ability to produce scoring opportunities.
"They play so good in D-zone," said Malkin. "It’s a hard game."
It doesn’t help that the Penguins are now patching potholes on the blue line. Kris Letang is already done for the season – imagine, for a brief moment, how the Senators might cope without Erik Karlsson – and Trevor Daley still isn’t ready to practice with his teammates.
In seeing Justin Schultz leave Monday’s game with an apparent shoulder injury, they lost a third defender capable of quarterbacking the power play and getting the puck in the hands of their skilled forwards.
With due respect to that group, it doesn’t scream championship calibre. The Senators should be able to find success by applying some forechecking pressure at Canadian Tire Centre, something they were lacking during an 18-minute stretch in Game 2 where they failed to register a shot on goal.
Pittsburgh might also be forced to play without injured wingers Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust – both key components in last year’s playoff run – while Ottawa is close to being at full health with Viktor Stalberg nearing a return.
Injuries are an inevitable part of playoff hockey, especially at this stage, but they have not slowed the Senators to nearly the same degree as the deeper defending champs.
"There’s a lot of emotion in the first round," Ottawa coach Guy Boucher said last week. "Teams are mostly healthy in the first round and excited and got a lot of energy. Then you start seeing in the middle of the second round, every game there’s more guys banged up, more guys tired. There’s a mental, physical and emotional wear down.
"And I think it’s nothing like the third round. … The third round is the banged-up round."
The Senators have held a quiet internal belief these last few months and repeatedly asked of themselves: Why not us?
Pittsburgh is still rightfully favoured in this best-of-seven, but it’s hard to miss the golden opportunity now in the Senators hands. They enjoyed an easier path to the conference final and are facing a battered opponent.
Everything seems to be aligning, just so.
They can draw on the confidence of bounce-back performances in Round 2 and were focused largely on atoning for an ugly third period on Monday – easily their worst of this series.
"We didn’t manage the puck like we did the previous five," said Boucher. "We gave away the puck way too many times, and we didn’t go to their net as much as we could. So we didn’t do enough in the third, and that’s where we lost the game."
Now they are back home preparing for Game 3 – the game where every series tends to take on a different look.
Not only does the venue change, but the other coach assumes last line change and has a chance to alter the in-game matchups. There are usually some adjustments made.
"Game 3, I think we understand they play at home," said Malkin. "I hope they not play like last game, they play a little bit more in the offensive zone and we have more chance to score."
Well, we might be coming back here again in June, too.