OTTAWA — Mike Hoffman noticed the chatter on social media about his team’s supposedly boring style of play, but he and the rest of the Ottawa Senators appear not to care as it continues to work.
Ottawa rolled over the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-1 in Game 3 on Wednesday night and now sit two wins from an unlikely trip to the Stanley Cup final.
“If we played a run-and-gun game that maybe some people would rather watch, we probably wouldn’t be here,” Hoffman said after the thorough dissection of the defending Stanley Cup champs. “So we use our assets and that’s what works.”
Though their offensive outburst highlighted the latest victory — including the fastest three goals in team playoff history — the Sens bottled up their opponents yet again. Pittsburgh has scored a mere three goals through the first three games of the series — one in each game, including a meaningless late tally from Sidney Crosby in Game 3.
The Sens struck 48 seconds into the first Eastern Conference final game at Canadian Tire Centre in 10 years, but in the 10 or so minutes after that — with the game still close — Pittsburgh got little going offensively. The usually speedy Pens were slowed down through a contested neutral zone and managed only non-threatening shots from the outside at Craig Anderson.
Then, Ottawa fired off three goals in two minutes and 18 seconds to put the game out of reach.
The wave began with relentless pressure on the ailing Pittsburgh defence, which was without Justin Schultz for Game 3 on top of usual No. 1 defenceman Kris Letang, who’s out for the post-season. Nowhere was this was more apparent than on the third Senators goal when continued hounding of the Penguins forced a series of giveaways and eventually a tally from Derick Brassard.
The 29-year-old managed to get a step on Mark Streit, 10 years his senior, who was playing for the first time in the 2017 playoffs.
Hoffman, Marc Methot and Zack Smith also scored during the one-sided first period, which saw four goals get past Marc-Andre Fleury in 12 minutes and 52 seconds.
The rocky outing from Fleury now has the Penguins at least questioning whether to turn to Matt Murray for Game 4 on Friday night.
Of equal importance moving forward for Pittsburgh, the highest-scoring team in the regular season, will be finding a way past the so-called Kanata Wall.
Head coach Guy Boucher has insisted on an extremely defensive style from the day he took over the Senators last May.
It took until December for the full embrace, for his teachings to become instinctual rather than something that required thought out on the ice. As Hoffman explained it, everyone knew at that point — three months into the season — where they needed to be on the ice and what their responsibility was.
Maybe a run-and-gun attack might be more entertaining to watch, he added, but that’s not the way the team works under Boucher.
“At this level you do what the coach says,” said Hoffman, who also played for Boucher in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. “We’re workers here. We don’t decide which system is put in place, we just have to go out there and execute it and do our job. That’s what we’re here to do.”
For Boucher, that means a quick transition to defence when the puck is lost, plenty of blocked shots, “good sticks” in the defensive zone and a neutral zone crowded with waiting bodies.
Boucher observed slippage during a second-round series against New York with players “sniffing” out extra offensive zone opportunities and the Rangers capitalized with breakaways and odd-man rushes before ultimately falling in six games.
Ottawa was determined not to make the same mistakes against a more dangerous Pittsburgh opponent and of the nine periods played so far, Boucher has been happy with eight — the lone exception being the third period of Game 2.
Notable in their efforts is the continued shutdown of the Pens most explosive offensive players.
It took until six minutes into the third period of Game 3 for Crosby to land his first point of the series. Evgeni Malkin has a goal and an assist through three games, but finished with just a single shot and no points in Game 3. Phil Kessel got the game-winner after a series of frustrations in Game 2, but he’s been increasingly bothered by the constant jarring of former Maple Leafs teammate Dion Phaneuf.
The Sens are up in the series by playing exactly as they have for most of the season — leaning on their defensive ways to get by. Wednesday’s blowout was an oddity though for a team that had 11 of its first 14 games this spring decided by a goal.
“We’re not bothered by what’s said about our team,” Brassard said. “Our focus is on what we need to do.”