The Ottawa Senators came out strong in Game 1 of their playoff series against the Canadiens, getting a 4-2 win in Montreal to take a 1-0 series lead. Here’s a breakdown of some major moments from the opening game.
• Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson made a fabulous play to slice through the Montreal defense and produce the first goal of the game. Last season’s Norris Trophy winner always looks like he’s just gliding along, not really pushing the play up the ice as fast as he is. It doesn’t matter how many times opponents have seen it or how many of them know it’s coming; everybody seems to underestimate Karlsson’s speed. By the time he had shifted his stride from his own end of the ice and into the neutral zone, it was already too late for the chasing Canadiens to close the gap on him. Karlsson split the space between Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec and then skipped the puck to Kyle Turris on his left side – it looked more like a lost puck than a pass, but who’s counting – and then took a return feed from Turris and tipped it behind Carey Price. How many times this season and last has Karlsson split forecheckers and defenses who misjudge his speed?
• Chris Neil giveth and Chris Neil taketh on the chin. The rugged Senator who was second in the league in penalty minutes and is known as one of the hardest hitters in the game absorbed one of the year’s best hits early in the second period when Norris Trophy candidate P.K. Subban caught him in center ice. Neil was carrying the puck up the left side of center ice when Subban put the radar on him. Subban then made a signature attack, gliding in a swift arc to his right side, then lowering the shoulder and knocking Neil off both skates before he reached the sideboards. It is an exaggerated axiom that a fight or big hit can change the momentum of a game, but Montreal controlled most of the play for the rest of the period after the hit. The Canadiens went on a power play soon afterwards and after Ottawa killed that penalty, Montreal’s Rene Bourque managed to sneak through on a breakaway, but was turned back by Anderson. Then they went on a major power play and ended up outshooting Ottawa, 27-7, in the second period.
• Ottawa’s Craig Anderson is one of the best goalies in the league at covering the short side. All season, opposing forwards have gotten turned back after trying to sweep pucks around the back of the net and tuck them into an open corner that isn’t there. Anderson doesn’t stray far from his crease and he really glides from side to side very quickly. On Thursday, he turned back three wraparound or jam plays at the lower part of the net. It took some timely lifting – rather than heavy lifting – from Habs forward Rene Bourque to get Montreal on the board when he roofed a backhander above Anderson’s block and off the inside of the net support for Montreal’s first goal. That is the way to beat Anderson, who doesn’t give up much in the lower part of the net. In fact, given his 48 saves, a reminder of the league leading .941 save percentage he had during the regular season, he really doesn’t give up much at all.
• A few thoughts about the hit by Eric Gryba on Lars Eller. First, Raphael Diaz should never have made the pass to Eller in the first place. A pass like that into the center of the ice just before a team’s own blueline is a classic example of a so-called suicide pass. It was slightly to Eller’s side, too, which forced him to reach an extra split second before receiving the pass. That left Eller with a choice of whether to look up and ready himself for a hit or make sure he had control of the puck. It appeared that Eller then fell forward and hit his face on the ice. It was tough to tell whether the hit itself or the brunt of impact from his contact on the ice caused the resulting injury. And at least from the angles shown on television, it wasn’t clear where the initial point of contact actually was. In either case, Eller looked like he had enough wind taken out of him that he was unable to cushion his face and head during the fall to the ice. Also, the major penalty call may been correct, but the decision to call it interference was not. Eller’s stick made contact with the puck before the hit from Gryba. That is not interference.
• With the Senators down a man for five minutes after Gryba’s hit, Ottawa forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau took an additional penalty for tripping Subban, leaving his team two men down.
• While they were shorthanded, the Senators were too intent on covering the Canadiens point men on the power play. Ottawa used an inverted triangle when down two men. All night long, the Senators were way up on defensemen Subban and Andrei Markov, enabling Montreal’s forward to slip into gaps both above and below the Ottawa defense. On the Canadiens’ second goal, Brendan Gallagher took the saucer pass from Plekanec because Ottawa defenseman Marc Methot left too much room for a centering pass to find Gallagher, who swatted the pass behind Anderson to give Montreal a 2-1 lead.
• Is Daniel Alfredsson seriously over 40? His hustle was paramount in Ottawa’s go-ahead goal in the third period. Off the faceoff in the Montreal zone, Alfredsson jumped on a loose puck that several players could have had. He flipped a bad-angle shot at Price, who turned it away easily at his right side. Yet Alfredsson didn’t quit on the play. Instead, as Diaz was about the grab the puck cleanly and slap it along the sideboards and out of harm’s way, Alfredsson got his stick on Diaz’s and kept the play alive. Several seconds later, the Ottawa captain intercepted Josh Georges’ lazy bank pass behind the net and sent the pass back to Methot, who beat Price for what turned out to be the winning goal.
• Brandon Prust is an underappreciated part of Montreal’s improved play this year, and perhaps a reason why the Rangers have been flat at times without his spirit. Brian Boyle is noticeably less aggressive without Prust on his wing. However, Prust’s enthusiasm got the better of him twice in the third period. First, Ottawa’s Sergei Gonchar gave him a shot from behind, away from the puck in center ice. That might have resulted in a Canadiens’ power play, except that Prust gave an extra jump forward and took an embellishment penalty that negated the advantage. Later in the period, Prust got tangled up with Karlsson in front of the net, and as the puck was shot into the net from the right corner, Prust then raised his stick at mask level so it made contact (accidental, of course) with Anderson’s face. The goal was correctly waved off.
• So what now for the Canadiens? Stop trying to beat Anderson with low shots. Make Karlsson work in his own zone. Keep him busy behind his net and in front of his goaltender by working the puck to his side — yes, counter-intuitive, but that’s the old Fred Shero trick — and if you do turn the puck over, get back quicker than you think you have to, because, well, against Karlsson, you have to. Don’t get frustrated and try to make up for what happened to Eller. Montreal played its best hockey in the second period when it just played, albeit with a lot of time of the power play. And, no mystery here, but Price has to stop the ones he should stop.