Ottawa spent the first four games of its Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the New York Rangers playing from behind, but on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden the Senators finally decided enough was enough.
The No. 8 seed Sens flipped the script and scored early, then held on for the final two periods, earning a hard-fought 2-0 win over the top-seeded Rangers and taking an improbable 3-2 series lead. The series now heads back to Ottawa, where the Senators, on Monday, can become the 10th No. 8 seed in NHL history to knock off a No. 1 seed in the first round.
“For us we did a great job of just coming out and having a great start,” said Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson, who had 41 saves in his second career playoff shutout. “We talked about having a good start after what happened last game, and that was kind of key to our success, learning how to play with the lead.”
After failing to get on the board first, or even hold a regulation lead, in any of the first four games of the series — the only two Senators leads of the series came on game-winning goals in overtime — Ottawa took a 1-0 lead on Jason Spezza’s goal with 10:42 left in the first period.
The goal, which was just the second for Spezza in his last 20 playoff games, provided a huge boost for a Senators team that was playing, once again, without captain Daniel Alfredsson, who was sidelined with a concussion for the third straight game — the result of an elbow to the head from Rangers rookie Carl Hagelin in Game 2.
“We’ve been a resilient bunch all year, nobody’s given us much of a chance, and it’s definitely something you can rally behind as a group,” Spezza said. “It’s a huge loss to have Alfie out. He’s our captain, and we’re a much better team with him in the lineup, but I think the guys have a never-say-die approach, and we’re not going to let it phase us.”
Spezza later added an empty-net goal late in the third period, and Anderson made 15 saves in the final frame to seal the win.
Anderson, who some suspected would be Ottawa’s weak link in this series, has been marvelous, allowing just five goals in his last four games and stopping 66 straight shots since falling behind 2-0 in the first period of Game 4 — a span of more than 116 minutes of shutout hockey.
“He’s been playing well,” said Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who had 28 saves Saturday. “We have to keep working, and have to keep pushing ourselves to play even better and get a little more involved in front of the net.”
Unfortunately, if the Rangers are going to regain their touch on offense and force a Game 7, they may have to do it without their most consistent player in the series so far in Brian Boyle, who fell victim to the latest controversial hit of what has been an extremely physical series.
With 14:39 left in the third period, Boyle, who scored three goals in the first four games, missed a wrist shot wide of the net and was met almost immediately by Chris Neil, who threw a shoulder into the forward, knocking him to the ice.
After the game, a heated Rangers coach John Tortorella called the check a “dangerous, cheap hit” and reported that Boyle — who was jumped by Ottawa tough guy Matt Carkner early in Game 2 and also fought with Neil later in that game — had suffered a concussion as a result.
“They have a blueprint; it’s probably the exact same hit as (Raffi) Torres, just a different part of the ice,” Tortorella said, referring to the Phoenix Coyotes winger’s hit on Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa in Game 3 of their Western Conference series.
“He launches himself, headshot, puck’s at the goal line when he’s hit. So the blueprint’s there. I’m sure he’s a repeat offender too. Not too much research to be done there.”
Torres was later suspended 25 games for his hit, but Neil’s check did not appear to be as blatant as Torres’ and, like Torres, Neil was not penalized for the hit during the game. Neil, however, is not a repeat offender, as Tortorella claimed, and argued that he thought the hit was legal.
“He cuts to the middle with his head down, obviously I’m putting back pressure and trying to bust back and get in good position,” Neil said. “I’m a physical player out there, and I think it was a clean hit.
“Obviously he was slow getting up but I think I probably just knocked the wind out of him, I caught him right in the chest. He’s a big man and it takes a lot out of me giving those hits too.”
With or without Boyle, the Rangers will need to show up with a better offensive effort Monday if they want to force a deciding game at the Garden. And to do it, they’ll have to figure out a way to get the puck in the net. Over the last three games, Anderson and the Senators have allowed just one even-strength goal.
“I feel better about the team after tonight’s game than a couple of wins that we’ve had,” Tortorella said. “So we go to Ottawa and have to try to play the same way and keep banging away and see if we can score some goals. … That’s why it’s a series. They have to win four.”
Ottawa, meanwhile, doesn’t expect the Rangers to roll over and is under no impression that the series is over just because they have a lead.
“We know that we’re going to get their best,” Spezza said. “The toughest game is to put a team out of the playoffs, so we can enjoy this one for all of 10 minutes then get refocused. We know they’re the best team in the East and they’re going to give us their best game in Game 6.”
“We’ll enjoy it on the plane ride home, but as soon as the sun comes up tomorrow, it’s all business again,” said Anderson. “You play 82 games during the regular season to get to this opportunity and get to this point, and you want to feel that success and want to continue with it. Just because you get there doesn’t mean you’ve got to be satisfied, and right now we’ve got to keep pushing forward.”