By Allan Muir
Peter Budaj, Michael Blunden, Jeff Halpern and Gabriel Dumont weren’t the players expected to lead the Montreal Canadiens to playoff glory.
So really, who can be surprised they didn’t?
Missing their starting goalie, their captain, one of their top forwards and a heart-and-soul winger, the half-staffed Canadiens were no match for the Ottawa Senators Thursday night. They bowed meekly, 6-1, in the decisive Game 5 of their first-round playoff series.
The Sens now await the results of the other quarter-final series, but likely will face the Pittsburgh Penguins, who took a 3-2 series lead after shutting out the New York Islanders tonight.
Some thoughts and observations on this elimination game:
• While the Habs struggled with their patchwork lineup, it might have been Ottawa’s own string of catastrophic injuries that best prepared them to knock off Montreal. Back in February, playing without Craig Anderson, Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza, the Sens were written off as a likely lottery team. But thanks to some Adams-worthy coaching from Paul MacLean and a cast of quick, hard-working callups from the minors like Eric Gryba, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Mika Zibanejad, Ottawa managed to battle its way to a surprising playoff berth. And as the wounded slowly returned to their lineup, the kids shifted down the roster, providing a level of energetic depth that the Canadiens simply couldn’t match.
• It was a game that could be summed up by two shots. At one end, Ottawa’s Craig Anderson stared down Rene Bourque and made a sensational glove save on his point-blank shot just a minute into the contest, letting the Habs know just what they were up against. Just more than a minute later, Peter Budaj fed a fat rebound of Matt Kassian’s soft point shot directly into the slot, where it was picked up by Zack Smith and cashed in for Ottawa’s first goal. On a night when the Habs needed a superlative effort from their backup just to stay alive, it was instantly clear that Budaj’s nerves had gotten the best of him. By the time Cory Conacher made it 2-0 on another misplay by the Montreal goalie 10 minutes later, the game was essentially over.
• You can’t overstate the impact of Anderson in this series. He finished with a .950 save percentage. At that rate, the Canadiens, who fired 180 shots in the series, would have had to take another 200 shots — an average of 76 shots per game — to match Ottawa’s series goal output. His ability to deaden rebounds and wrap them up killed Montreal’s chances to score on the second chances that were being tossed around like Halloween candy at the other end of the rink by Carey Price and Budaj.
• Feel free to go as deep into the advanced analytics as you like. Here’s the one statistic that tells the story of this series: Over the five games, the Canadiens were outscored in the third period 12-0. Again, Ottawa scored 12 times, including three tonight. Montreal? Zip. Zero. Not one single goal scored in the frame where most playoff games are decided. You can parse out the blame however you want: a red-hot Anderson, a struggling Canadiens power play, Ottawa’s ability to shut it down in the clutch. Ultimately, that failure is the one that cost them the series.
• While we’re looking at the numbers, here’s another one to tuck away. Ottawa was 3-for-5 on the power play tonight, and while all of them were scored in what was essentially garbage time in the third, the confidence they picked up might come in handy in the next round. Even with Erik Karlsson manning the point, the Sens looked out of sync with the extra man through the first four games, scoring just three goals on 20 chances. For them to compete against their next opponent, special teams success will be critical.
• Habs fans will argue this one could have swung on the breaks. Probably not, because Ottawa clearly was the better team over the five games. Still, there were moments when the game was up for grabs. It would have been interesting, for example, to see what would have happened if Colby Armstrong had found twine instead of steel on a shorthanded bid midway through the second period with the score still 2-1 for Ottawa. Just two minutes later, Erik Condra picked up the puck deep in his own zone on the penalty kill and lugged it into the Montreal zone. Kyle Turris, who drove the net as the trailer, was shoved into Budaj by a backchecking Tomas Plekanec. He was still laying in the crease when Condra’s shot bounced off his hip and into the net for the backbreaking third goal. Here’s the explanation Toronto offered for calling it a good goal, courtesy NHL.com.
• Already hearing chatter that this loss will cost Michel Therrien his job. I don’t buy that for a moment. He brought the Habs from 15th in the conference to second in one year, and had a litany of injuries to deal with in this round. If the players don’t like him, tough. He’s coming back.
• Not sure it tops “Bug-eyed, fat walrus,” but it was appropriate that a very quotable series ended with this gem from the walrus himself: “We just beat the Montreal Canadiens. That’s huge. I’ve gotta call my mom and tell her we just beat her team,” Senators coach Paul MacLean said.