Sens proving they belong among finalists
PITTSBURGH — The Ottawa Senators heard the naysayers. The chorus has grown so loud over the last month, tuning it out simply wasn’t an option no matter how many one-goal victories they pulled off in the playoffs.
“A lot of people were doubting us and almost made us start doubting ourselves,” defenseman Cody Ceci said.
Emphasis on almost.
If there was any concern Ottawa was just happy to be in the Eastern Conference finals, it vanished by the time Bobby Ryan slipped a backhander by Marc-Andre Fleury 4:59 into overtime Saturday night for a 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1.
The team that spent most of the season trying to figure out roles in first-year coach Guy Boucher’s throwback 1-3-1 neutral-zone trap and the goalie who spent half the season away from the ice helping his wife undergo cancer treatment are more than just a feel-good story.
The proof came in 65 minutes against the defending Stanley Cup champions. Even with do-everything defenseman Erik Karlsson having an off night (by his impeccable standards), the Senators never trailed thanks to heads up play by Ryan and 27 saves by Craig Anderson.
Anderson then got to spend Mother’s Day with wife Nicholle and their two children after doctors cleared Nicholle to travel while awaiting the next step in her battle against throat cancer.
While Anderson is content to speak softly and let his play do the talking, the guys in front of him are well aware of what his family is going through, circumstances that make his performance all the more remarkable.
“He’s playing like a man possessed right now,” Ryan said. “He’s giving us a chance every night, and he’s stealing them for us. He’s winning us games. He’s been our MVP.”
The key now will be trying to build on their performance in Game 2 tonight.
Sure they lack Pittsburgh’s star power and pedigree. So what?
“We didn’t do any extraordinary things,” Boucher said. “We just did the ordinary things well, and we stuck to it.”
The Penguins find themselves chasing — a position they managed to avoid in series victories over Columbus and Washington. It’s not entirely unfamiliar territory.
A year ago, Pittsburgh put away the Capitals in a draining six-game series and promptly threw in a 3-1 clunker against Tampa Bay in Game 1 of the conference finals. The Penguins rallied to win in seven games, and beat San Jose for the franchise’s fourth Cup.
“I think sometimes you just need to stick with things, and you don’t need to change things too much sometimes,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “It’s just a matter of execution.”
And maybe a slight adjustment of mindset. Coach Mike Sullivan arrived 17 months ago stressing the need for his roster dotted with highly skilled players needs to rid itself of bad habits, namely trying to score a highlight reel goal instead of just putting the puck on net and seeing what happens next. It’s a message he repeated before, during and after Game 1.
The Penguins managed just 17 shots during five-on-five play while the Senators had 32. It wasn’t an anomaly but the latest iteration of a troubling trend Sullivan has watched up momentum in recent weeks. So Sunday morning, Sullivan turned on the video and pointed out multiple instances where a shooting lane was open and instead the puck went elsewhere. His message was simple: keep Anderson and Ottawa’s defense as busy as possible.
The Senators anticipate Pittsburgh tweaking its approach. You don’t win six consecutive postseason series by accident. Ottawa also knows it has the Penguins’ full attention. In Game 2, they can capture the rest of the NHL’s too.
“We’re keeping everything internal, staying away from clippings and all that kind of stuff,” Ryan said. “You just want to not get too high after one win.”