By Allan Muir
We know this much about the Ottawa Senators. Placed on a slab and fitted for a toe tag early this season after Jason Spezza, Craig Anderson and Erik Karlsson were dispatched to the long-term IR, this team hopped off and danced a jig on its own grave just to prove everyone wrong. So maybe writing the Sens’ obituary before they have a chance to play Game 5 in Pittsburgh tonight is a bit foolish.
Granted, Daniel Alfredsson, the team’s captain, doesn’t like Ottawa’s long-term chances for survival, but that doesn’t mean they won’t live to fight at least one more day.
“If you ask anyone and they looked at our series, I don’t think there’s too many people who would have pick us right now. That’s what I meant,” Alfredsson said by way of explaining his post-Game 4 quote that the Sens probably wouldn’t win the series. “We have an opportunity and we’re still in the playoffs. We have always responded when we were up against the wall and I expect us to do the same thing [in Game 5] and give ourselves a chance to win a game and come back [to Ottawa for Game 6].”
Whether they come into the contest as never-say-die warriors, or with the easy calm of a team that has nothing to lose, the Senators still face long odds of extending the series against a Pittsburgh squad that proved it could keep its foot on the gas in Wednesday’s 7-3 thumping.
The Penguins boasted the league’s most prolific offense during the regular season, averaging 3.4 goals per game. That was nothing. In the postseason, they’re churning ‘em out at a rate of 4.1 per game. No team during the past 15 years has done that during a playoff run that lasted at least two rounds. The Pens have scored at least four goals in eight of their 10 playoff games, so they’re as consistent as they are dangerous.
And now that James Neal and Jarome Iginla have snapped out of long scoring droughts by netting a pair apiece in Game 4, everything we’ve seen to this point might just have hinted at how potent the Penguins can be.
In other words, it’s going to take a lot more than words of determination from the captain for Ottawa to avoid being blown out again Friday night.
It starts with Anderson, of course. After showcasing his all-world stopper abilities while smothering Montreal’s offense in the first round, Anderson has struggled to maintain his form against the Pens, overwhelmed by both the quantity and quality of chances they’ve created. He’s even been chased twice in this series, something that didn’t happen all season, but as he showed in Ottawa’s Game 3 double-overtime win when he stopped 49 of 50 shots, there’s still a bit of larceny left in his tired bones.
But he can’t be expected to do it all himself. The Penguins are averaging 40 shots per game this spring. Allowing that number on Friday is courting trouble, so all 18 Senators skaters have to be committed to minimizing Anderson’s exposure. Blocking shots, sticks in the passing lanes, keeping shooters to the outside…whatever it takes.
Well, almost whatever. Discipline will be another key to Ottawa’s survival. Pittsburgh’s power play is clicking at a league-best 28.6 percent in the playoffs. Neal’s game-winner was one of two they scored on five chances on Wednesday, but just as important is how effective they’ve been at hemming Ottawa in its zone with the extra man. That takes a lot out of the Senators’ penalty killers, and since the unit relies heavily on the team’s top-two scorers — Alfredsson and Kyle Turris — it saps the energy they need to be dangerous when they finally get the puck back. Getting into penalty trouble might just be an ender.
When the Sens are on the attack, they have to forget about making the perfect play and just get the puck on the net. Tomas Vokoun has been solid since taking over for Marc-Andre Fleury, but nearly every start has featured moments where his concentration or execution has wavered. He’s beatable, especially if they get bodies to the net. That takes some courage when Brooks Orpik and Douglas Murray are patrolling the crease, but a few bruises are preferable to a Saturday afternoon tee time.
Or maybe the Senators just have to play the way they’ve always played and let the chips fall where they may. As Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review pointed out, the Penguins have an 0-6 record all-time under Dan Bylsma in close-out games at home.
So he’s saying there’s a chance…