PITTSBURGH – With his team channeling its inner early-2000s, Ottawa Senators coach Guy Boucher made it clear that he and his team are intent on continuing to make the 2017 Eastern Conference final a mind-numbingly turgid affair. And it’s also one they intend on winning.
You watch the push the Senators displayed in Game 2 after they fell behind 1-0 and you wonder whether it would kill them to display that kind of urgency in the offensive zone more than once or twice a game. They’re clearly capable of scoring. They’ve done it before with aplomb in these playoffs. But when it comes to defeating the defending Stanley Cup champions, it’s clear they think they need to drag the game into the mud.
The Senators went 15 minutes without a shot on goal in Game 2. That’s 15 hockey minutes, not real minutes. But as they departed Pittsburgh for Game 3 on home ice Wednesday night, they did not do so with a sense of missed opportunity. They were practically whistling a happy tune and clicking their heels together. That’s because they came in and stole one game and they know it. Now all they have to do is steal three more and they’re in the Stanley Cup final.
Which, of course, would be great for them, but a disaster for anyone outside the 613 area code, or doesn’t have a skin in this game who likes watching hockey that is not sleep-inducing. And the Senators making the playoffs playing this way has the potential to set the game back years, particularly when you’re dealing with a copycat league such as the NHL.
“There’s an opponent out there,” Boucher said. “I want to push, but it’s the Stanley Cup champions on the other side over there. We’re not going to stomp all over them and if we get into an offensive contest, well, we can give them the series right now. We have to know what we are and we have to be able to know what we’re able to do and this is the hardest these guys have pushed all year. The urgency is due to the fact that you’re trailing at the end of the game. You can’t reproduce that for 60 minutes. That’s inhumane. I mean, you can’t. It’s impossible to do that.”
That, of course, is assuming that the two aspects of the game are mutually exclusive, which they aren’t. Having a push occasionally in the offensive zone is a matter of game management and circumstance. Nobody is saying the Senators have to play that way for 60 minutes, but perhaps if they did for 15 minutes, they might not have to win these games 2-1. Depending upon the health of Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz, who left Game 2 early with an injury, the Penguins could very well be without their top three puck-moving defensemen – Kris Letang and Trevor Daley are also both out of the lineup with injuries – which subtracts a lot of the speed out of the Penguins lineup and could make them vulnerable to coughing up more pucks in the defensive zone if only they’re put under some duress.
But as Boucher said, the Senators have to know who they are. And they have to know whom they serve. They have no obligation to the NHL’s wider fan base to provide a product that is compelling and entertaining. Their only debt is to themselves and to their fans to win as many games as possible. And if they feel this is the way they have to play to do that, then that’s exactly what they’re going to do.
The zone time in the first two games of the series has seriously favored the Penguins. In fact, at times it looked in Game 2 as though the Senators weren’t even trying to generate anything and were playing for overtime. That approach backfired in Game 2, but the Senators know that more often than not, it’s going to be one that works for them. And they can definitely take some solace in the fact that they’ve held such a talented offensive team to just two goals in six-plus periods of hockey.
“I know the one positive is, I mean, the game is right there,” said Senators defenseman Marc Methot. “Even though they were all over us at times, we still had an opportunity to win that game and we know we can hang in there right now. You’ve got to look at it that way. We know we belong here in this position and we’ve worked really hard to get here and the series is 1-1 and we’re able to get home and play a few home games. We’re really looking forward to it.”
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