By Allan Muir
It was in the bag. The Montreal Canadiens, still smarting from their Game 3 humiliation, built up a 2-0 lead on the Ottawa Senators. They played with urgency and passion, never giving the home team a chance to build any momentum from Sunday night’s thumping. Through 40 minutes, Montreal looked like a team ready to regain control of this series.
And then it all fell apart.
Mika Zibanejad cut the lead to one when the NHL war room ruled he hadn’t kicked the puck behind Carey Price, despite what seemed like compelling video evidence. Then, with Craig Anderson pulled for the extra attacker, Cory Conacher joined a mad scramble in the Montreal crease, where he somehow managed to poke the puck in with just 23 seconds remaining.
When overtime started, it was Peter Budaj, not Price, who skated out to guard the Montreal net. And just 2:32 later, it was Budaj who sank to his knees in dejection after watching Kyle Turris’ soft floater elude him from 40 feet out, giving Ottawa a 3-2 win and a stunning 3-1 series lead.
Here are a few observations on this Game 7-caliber thriller:
• There will be a lot of people wondering why the Canadiens sat back in the third period instead of playing the aggressive, breakneck-paced style that allowed them to build the lead through the first two stanzas. I’m not sure that’s the right question. What they should be asking is why were the Habs not prepared for a Senators team that has dominated them in the third period throughout this series?
Prior to tonight, the Sens had outscored the Canadiens 7-0 in the third period, so they had to realize their two-goal lead was going to be seriously tested. But somehow they still were caught flat-footed as Ottawa roared out of the gate, taking seven of the first eight shots while keeping the Habs bottled up in their own zone. That’s not a team sitting on a lead. That’s a failure on the part of Montreal’s coaching staff to have the players ready.
• The other big question on everyone’s mind: Will Price be available for Game 5? The team had nothing to report after the game, but it was clear that he strained something in the lower-body area while getting a piece of Zibanejad’s blast as time expired in the third. Hip, groin; no way of knowing and the Canadiens aren’t likely to say. But if he couldn’t come out for overtime, odds are he won’t be ready for Thursday night in Montreal.
• Prior to getting knocked out, this game served as a solid response from Price, who had given up 10 goals in his two losses this series. He couldn’t be blamed for either Ottawa tally in this one (more on those below), and he made a number of big saves through the first 50 minutes to preserve Montreal’s lead. There were moments when he appeared to struggle with his rebound control, but overall he did enough to get the win.
• There was nothing like the nastiness we saw in Game 3 on display tonight. In fact, after that 236-penalty minute tribute to old-time hockey, the teams combined for just four minors tonight, with three going to the Habs. But while they may have maintained their discipline there was no stopping the growing animosity between the two teams. Montreal and Ottawa combined for 55 hits in a fairly genteel Game 1, then put up 61 in Game 2. Game 3 saw the total jump to 91. Tonight, they had combined for 107. They’re layering bruises on bruises.
• Not much extra attention was paid to Ottawa defender Eric Gryba, who returned tonight after serving his two-game suspension for a questionable head shot on Lars Eller in Game 1. He was bumped a few times and drew a penalty when Brandon Prust got his gloves up high in his face, but if the Habs are looking to get even, it clearly wasn’t high on their list of priorities tonight.
• Let’s be honest: Zibanejad’s goal at 8:55 of the third? If that wasn’t a kicking motion, it was whatever directly precedes a kicking motion. The play started with some nice work along the boards by Chris Neil, who won a race for the puck and then smartly whipped it directly towards Price. It passed through some legs, then arrived in the crease at the exact same moment as Zibanejad who, for the sake of argument, dug in hard with his left foot in a manner that may have been associated with stopping and appeared to direct the puck into the net. The play was first ruled a good goal on the ice, and then was allowed to stand by the powers that be in Toronto. The game clearly turned on that play.
• Conacher’s goal was a classic desperation equalizer, with bodies crashing the net and several wild swipes at the puck until it slipped underneath Price. Sens fans will point out that it took a savvy pass from Daniel Alfredsson, who confused the defense by throwing it back in front on the short side rather than carrying it around the net before dishing. True enough. Canadiens fans, though, have a decent gripe that it was preceded by two fairly sketchy icing calls that kept the play hemmed deep in the Montreal end.
• Not saying this is related to anything mentioned above, but a gentle reminder to Montreal’s fans: It’s bad karma to sing your victory song in the second period with only a two-goal lead.