Saturday, April 14, 2012
Senators Embrace Playoff-Style Hockey And Get Huge Win For The Road-Split In NY
Ottawa 3 New York 2 (Series tied 1-1)
Just minutes after Chris Neil backhanded a loose puck past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist for the overtime winner in Game 2, the much under-appreciated winger stood calmly for the traditional post-game HNIC interview accorded to all playoff heroes.
As the first question, Cassie Campbell described to Neil the scene in the hallway just moments after the winning goal where Senators coach Paul MacLean walked right up to the previously ejected Matt Carkner and shook his hand. Campbell asked Neil what it meant to the team that Carkner had been tossed for instigating a fight with Brian Boyle in retaliation for a Game 1 pummelling of Ottawa's best player, Erik Karlsson.
Neil, like Nick Foligno had also done in a 2nd intermission interview, praised Carkner's actions and said that the Ottawa Senators were a "family" and that it meant a lot to the guys in the room that Carkner addressed the problem right away.
It's telling to me that some were wondering about a possible Carkner suspension and moaning about his "brutality" while MacLean was going out of his way to shake Carkner's hand. The players and coaches know what that fight meant to the dressing room, and that's all that will matter in the end. The rest is just schoolyard chatter by so-called "experts" on the game.
You've all seen it by now. Carkner challenged Boyle right away for the Karlsson incident and didn't wait for the answer. Fists flew and Boyle took a couple hard ones before crumpling to the ice trying to protect whatever good looks he had. All Carkner did was deliver as many punches as Boyle did two nights before to Karlsson's head, only this time a lot harder.
It got Carkner tossed but it also gave the Senators a five minute disadvantage despite Ranger Brandon Dubinsky getting tossed for being the third-man-in (Dubinsky also savaged a Gatorade cooler on his way to the room, a clip that will be played for years during montages across all sports networks regardless of context).
Reaction was split along the usual lines. People who don't like the rougher side of the game were already bemoaning the fact that Coach MacLean had started Carkner and Zenon Konopka and when Carkner took the extra five minutes, those people were throwing their hands in the air. Others saw it as something that just had to be done, regardless of the consequences.
Turns out, the Rangers didn't even come close to scoring on the extended power-play and the Senators seemed like a different team after that.
In Game One, it was like the Senators had completely forgotten how intense you had to be in the playoffs to make a difference. If you had seen the Penguins-Flyers or Predators-Wings opening games, you saw four teams exploding on every shift, dying for the puck and battling each other for every opening of ice.
The Senators saw that from the Rangers but didn't have the spark they needed to respond properly. Rightly, MacLean saw the weakness and fixed the problem by inserting experience and toughness with Carkner and Konopka over Matt Gilroy and Kaspars Daugavins.
It didn't pay off right away, and at moments in Game Two it looked as if the Rangers would sneak away with another victory because Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson couldn't get pucks to the net. Yet, after the gong-show opening, the Senators at least rediscovered that never-say-die mentality they had during their best stretches of the regular season. The chemistry worked. Konopka didn't do anything outlandish all night but win faceoffs and look like a de facto Boston Bruin out there.
Karlsson, suddenly feeling a little taller and more confident thanks to Carkner's payback, was the best Senator on the night, constantly rushing the puck and putting it on net every chance he had. His 10 shots (and those were just the ones that got through) were twice as many as second place Zack Smith's 5.
Jared Cowen rebounded from an awful Game One and was a physical force most of the night being second to Karlsson in credited hits with 4 (the MSG statisticians seem to be a little stingy in the hits department).
Craig Anderson again couldn't control any rebounds but he made some important stops after giving up a bad goal to Anton Stralman on the power-play halfway through the first.
Of course, the big negative to come out of the night was Daniel Alfredsson leaving the game after taking a cheap shot elbow to the head from Carl Hagelin in the second period, and as of this writing, nobody knows what kind of shape the captain is in.
It was that kind of night. The CBC talking heads kept using the words "circus" and they were pretty close. We saw elbows, slew foots, dives, rabbit punches, headlocks, phantom penalties, pummelings, blood, blocked shots, blocked shots with groins and an overtime goal by Neil.
Hell of a game.
To me, there's a direct correlation to Carkner deciding to stand up for his teammates and the Senators finally finding the balls to play playoff hockey the way it's supposed to be done. It's rarely pretty and victories sometimes come on strange bounces, but the Senators couldn't continue to go down the path of taking punishment from the Rangers and trying to turn the other cheek by rigidly sticking to a ho-hum game plan that was completely lacking in emotion and drive.
They needed a gutsy effort and they got it, even if they took the long way around.
First game back in Ottawa should be a doozy.
Black Aces Senators 3 Stars
1. Matt Carkner
2. Erik Karlsson
3. Chris Neil
Honourable Mentions: Jared Cowen, Nick Foligno, Zenon Konopka and Filip Kuba.