OTTAWA — You’ll have to excuse the Ottawa Senators.
Yes, they eliminated any intrigue for one more night in the Eastern Conference Final. Only in Game 3, they did so by silencing critics with a masterful first-period response.
The Senators exploded for four goals in under 13 minutes in their return to home ice, in the process doubling their goal total in two previous games in Pittsburgh, before settling into their characteristically stymying defensive structure to secure a 5-1 triumph over the Penguins on Wednesday night.
Now, after treating their fully-engaged and enthusiastic sellout crowd to a dominant victory, the Senators, who have been slammed at every turn this postseason, have a chance to push the heavily-favoured defending Stanley Cup champions to the brink of elimination in Game 4 at the Canadian Tire Centre, a rink where they have won four straight.
It wasn’t without concern that every neutral fan’s fears would be realized. The Senators seized an advantage 48 seconds into Game 3 when Mike Hoffman banked a loose up at the side of the goal off the pad of Marc-Andre Fleury, giving his team an early lead, and therefore an excuse to park the bus.
But after a brief period of inactivity, where it appeared the Senators would indeed live in their patented 1-3-1 trap for the remaining 59 minutes of the game, they began pushing the puck back up ice with intent.
And they were rewarded every time they launched a meaningful attack.
“There was a lot of energy and emotion in the dressing room, coming back here,” said Hoffman. “First game at home in the conference final against the defending champions, so we got one early, the crowd got into it, and we just kept going from there.”
Near the halfway mark of the first, while the Senators mounted some pressure in the Penguins’ zone, Marc Methot wandered down low, collected a pass from Bobby Ryan, and fired a shot off the mask of Fleury. The puck kicked off a defenceman and nestled behind the skate of the Penguins netminder, who, with his ears still ringing, incidentally dragged it into the net.
Less than two minutes after the Methot goal, more sustained pressure led to Clarke MacArthur fighting off a check before firing a gorgeous no-look pass onto the stick of Derick Brassard, who deposited it back door to make it 3-0. And just 24 seconds after that, Zack Smith deadened a dump in off the glass behind the Penguins’ goal, gathered it up on the forecheck, and beat Fleury back to the opposite post with a wonderful wrap-around.
Having heard the criticism, sucking the life out of another game with an offensive explosion had to have been something satisfying for the Senators.
Even if they weren’t quite willing to admit it.
“I don’t think anyone in this room cares how we do it,” said Kyle Turris, who made it 5-0 for the Senators with his fourth of the postseason early in the second period. “There’s going to be ugly ones, there’s going to be ones like tonight where we score more goals. We have had success this season playing a specific way, and I don’t see us changing it any time soon.”
“Today we found a way to capitalize on the first chances we got,” Erik Karlsson said. “After that we just played the game the way we needed to play. Whether it’s a win like this or a 1-0 win, our mentality, and the way we approach the game, is not changing.”
In that staunch defensive system designed by Guy Boucher, a four-goal lead was plenty. But when the Penguins came out with more jump to start the second, Craig Anderson, with his quiet-calm composure, denied the Penguins entrance back into the contest.
The veteran netminder made a few outstanding, expertly controlled stops to preserve the four-goal bulge, including a smooth glove stop on Carter Rowney’s shorthanded try from point-blank range.
Anderson has allowed just a single goal in each of the three games so far in the Eastern Conference Final, facing a total of 83 shots.
“He’s unbelievable. He’s incredible. He’s our backbone,” said Turris. “We play a system that tries to allow minimal scoring opportunities, but they’re going to get scoring opportunities, and when they do, Craig has been standing on his head all year for us. When he’s playing like he is, we just try to do everything we can to help him out.”
Sidney Crosby finally solved Anderson in the third, collecting his first point of the series with a tip in tight, leaving one glaring uncertainty (aside from the state of Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel’s friendship) heading into Thursday’s off day.
Now healthy, Matt Murray, the rookie star who anchored the Penguins’ title run last spring, made his first appearance of the postseason in relief of Fleury, who simply did not give the Penguins a chance to win in Game 3.
Asked which netminder will start in Friday’s critical Game 4, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said he would sleep on it.
This, while the Senators rest easy, knowing they’re that much closer to a most unlikely berth into the Stanley Cup Final.