PITTSBURGH – We’re willing to bet that Bobby Ryan of the Ottawa Senators can actually spell the word intense these days. Redemption is a much bigger, trickier word to negotiate, but chances are he’d crush that on a spelling bee as well. Like many of his Senators teammates, it’s pretty easy to cheer for Bobby Ryan, no more so than this season.
Ryan played his best game of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, earning a highlight assist and scoring the overtime winner in the Senators’ 2-1 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final. Just hours after publicly saying he wouldn’t be aggressive on 50-50 pucks against the deadly Penguins, Ryan jumped on a turnover and, in true Senators fashion in these playoffs, made the opponent pay. And as a result, the defending Stanley Cup champions find themselves trailing in a series for the first time in these playoffs.
Ryan had what could be charitably described as a miserable season. He posted the lowest point totals of his career, lower even than truncated 2012-13 season. The first body blow came off the ice when his mother, Melody Stevens, died of liver cancer in July. “Bobby had a tough year on a personal level and there’s nothing you can do about that,” said Senators coach Guy Boucher. “Some years are tougher than others in that respect. So he had a lot of things to manage.” He was a healthy scratch for a game in early January over what the team described as “complex issues.” He was injured. He is the Senators’ highest-paid player and often played this season as though he didn’t deserve to be. But for Ryan, this post-season has served as a clean slate and he has taken advantage of it.
“It’s a refresh for me,” Ryan said of the playoffs. “I think for me it was a complete restart…You just want to redeem yourself, right? You let yourself down, you let your teammates down and everybody around you and now I’m getting to, I guess, redeem myself a little bit. That’s all that I’m trying to do.”
This is a team that continues to confound with its success. When he spoke before the game, Boucher talked about how speed is the most important thing in the game these days, even more important than hockey sense. Then his team proceeded to slow the game to a crawl, evoking memories of the New Jersey Devils. They even managed to neutralize Penguins’ superstar Sidney Crosby and they didn’t even need to employ an accidentally-on-purpose “hockey play” crosscheck to Crosby’s face. One of the best players in the world was invisible most of the evening and was held to two shots. The Senators killed off all five Penguin power plays on the evening and did a good job of neutralizing the Penguins’ vaunted speed.
Was it fun for anyone outside the 613 area code to watch? That would be a very large no. But was it effective, particularly playing on the road? Absolutely.
“Yeah, we did a pretty good job,” said Senators winger Clarke MacArthur. “We got in trouble a couple of times in the last few series with some bad bounces in the middle that turned into breakaways and things like that and tonight, it didn’t seem that happened. We were able to take the middle and we were able to direct things to the outside. And Andy (goalie Craig Anderson) was able to make the saves when we needed them, so all in all it was a great team effort.”
It’s hard to believe the Senators could have possibly executed their game plan any better than they did in Game 1. They frustrated the Penguins, who had long stretches of play with possession of the puck, but little to show for their efforts. This is the way, unfortunately if you’re a fan of exciting hockey, the Senators are going to have to play if they want to win this series.
“I think the fact that their top players can come out of nowhere and create something, that’s the biggest worry that I think you’re going to have against that team,” Boucher said. “We’re aware of it, but it’s hard to be perfect. These guys are really, really good. I mean, that’s the Stanley Cup champions, and it’s a top group, and it’s a group that doesn’t have any flaws. It’s very difficult. So we’re expecting even more difficulty the next game.”
As far as Ryan is concerned, adjusting to a style of play that stifling has been a challenge. “It’s a new system,” MacArthur said. “It’s a defensive system and it sucks away some offensive chances for players like him. You can still create offense, he’s clearly showing that now. Big players elevate their games at the right time and I think that’s what he is for us.”
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