By Allan Muir
The Ottawa Senators have it all wrong.
They call themselves “The Pesky Sens,” swiping a catchphrase from the Dallas Stars and using it as a hashtag on Twitter. It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so misleading.
The Senators aren’t pesky. They’re resolute, resilient. They proved it again tonight, just when everyone was ready to write them off, piecing together their biggest win of the postseason by beating Pittsburgh 2-1 in double overtime in Game 3 to cut the Pens’ series lead to 2-1.
We’ve all made that mistake before. This is the same team that seemed destined for the draft lottery after losing Jason Spezza, then Craig Anderson, then Erik Karlsson in rapid succession. But the Senators proved everyone wrong, not just earning a playoff berth, but knocking off the second-seed Montreal Canadiens with ease.
So maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised to see them send what looked like a sure loss into overtime with a shorthanded beauty in the final minute off the stick of captain Daniel Alfredsson.
Or to see them grab their first lead of the series 7:39 into the second overtime, when Andre Benoit’s shot from the dot hit Tomas Vokoun in the chest and landed almost directly on the stick of Colin Greening, who took a backhand swat and popped it over the goaltender’s shoulder to seal a thrilling win over the stunned Penguins.
Suddenly, a series that was about to be 3-0 in favor of Pittsburgh is 2-1. And a team that was thisclose to playing for pride alone on Wednesday night has new life and a healthy helping of momentum to go with it.
The Resilient Sens. Now that’s got a ring to it.
Here are some thoughts and observations from Game 2:
• Forget what it says in the headline. The real hero of this game was Ottawa’s penalty kill. The same group that got lit up twice in the series opener changed the course of this game, and maybe the series, by slamming the door on six Pittsburgh power plays, including two in sudden death.
It wasn’t a flawless performance. They allowed the Pens’ attackers to control the puck for long stretches and there was the occasional flurry of activity around Anderson, but they kept quality chances to a bare minimum and held the fort when it mattered. Sergei Gonchar and Chris Phillips carried most of the water, keeping the Pens out of the middle of the ice and doing a nice job blocking the lanes.
• As much as everyone wanted Jason Spezza to be the white knight who rode in to save the day, he looked pretty much like a guy who had missed the last 50 games with a wonky back. Coach Paul MacLean used him sparingly — just over 12 minutes in regulation, a little over six in overtime — so his wind wasn’t an issue. Timing, however, was. The elements that mark his game — crisp passes, precision positioning, a marksman’s shot — they just weren’t there tonight. That’s not to say he didn’t help. Spezza landed four shots on net and won 60 percent of his draws, and having him as an option allowed MacLean to used Kyle Turris at times in his natural No. 2 center role, and that seemed to bring out his best. Spezza also survived a jarring, but perfectly clean hit from Craig Adams. The body may still be a little weak, but no questioning his heart.
• Both goaltenders came under fire for spotty performances in Game 2, but Vokoun and Anderson were up to the task tonight. Anderson was in top form, stopping 49 of 50 shots with great economy and poise. This was Andy at his best, thwarting breakaway bids from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin twice, including once on a thrilling chance that saw him dance through three Ottawa defenders before being stoned on a forehand-backhand move in overtime. It would have been the defining goal of his career and would have all but ended the series. Instead, Anderson shut him down. Wow.
Tonight marked the first time in these playoffs that the Pens hadn’t scored at least three goals. And now that Anderson has a little confidence to build on, that’s a line they might not cross for the rest of the series.
Vokoun had to battle a little harder to make his 46 stops, but he matched Anderson save-for-save until the end with a gritty performance that should earn him the start in Game 4 despite the loss.
• Here’s one you can take to the water cooler on Monday: Greening was late to the postgame press conference because he was being tended to by doctors. Apparently, he took a particularly vicious high stick to the face in the second period. He played the final three frames, and scored the winner, with shards of fiberglass in his face. Gotta love hockey.
• No official word yet from the Senators, but they might have to deal with an unfillable hole in their lineup if Chris Neil is lost for any time. The big winger, who was at his agitating best in Game 3 while racking up a game-high 10 hits, was shaken up after a hard blow delivered by Brooks Orpik. Neil lost his footing just as Orpik made contact, sending him heavily into the boards. He appeared to take the brunt of the impact with his left shoulder and didn’t return to the game.
• James Neal and Jarome Iginla combined for seven shots on the night but never seemed involved in the game. Hard to say if the problem was chemistry or opportunity, but it won’t be a surprise to see Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma shake up his lines in order to give his game-breaking wingers a chance to make an impact.
• It was a frustrating night for Malkin, who led all shooters with 10 shots, but failed to cash in on any of them. He was the forward who was caught well behind the play when Alfredsson notched the game-tying goal. Some of the blame here has to fall on Bylsma, who should have played the odds and had a more defensive-minded forward in Malkin’s place to ensure the lead was protected, but since he was on the ice, Malkin has to come up with a better effort there. So does Chris Kunitz, who all but waved as Alfredsson sped by. When you’ve got the extra man on the ice, you can’t make it that easy for the other team to score.
• Having three days between games could benefit Sidney Crosby as much as anyone. He led all forwards with 33:08 worth of ice time, well beyond his comfort zone. His fatigue was apparent in OT as he seemed slower and less involved. As with Spezza, it’s worth remembering that Crosby is still getting his legs back after a long stretch on the IR. He still has a way to go before he’s back in top shape.