Sens face familiar challenge
Three games into a seven game playoff series, the Ottawa Senators find themselves in the same position they were at the end of the regular season, backs to the wall and in need of a win to avoid an early start to the golf season. Down 3-0 to the Montreal Canadiens in this first round playoff series, the Senators face a 'do or die' situation. Fortunately though, it's not unfamiliar territory.
Not two weeks ago, the Sens faced the same challenge when they entered the final week of their regular season. In need to gain three points on the Bruins, the Sens won six of seven games to close out the season, defeating the Penguins, Rangers and Flyers in their final three games.
The final push started with their 2-1 overtime win in Detroit on March 31st. The win followed a three game lull in the Sens inspirational drive for a playoff spot. I was listening to that game on the radio. Clark MacArthur scored late in the third period to tie it up and then Stone won it in the shootout. Despite outplaying Detroit that night, it seemed the Sens were doomed to suffer a forth loss in a row at the hands of the Red Wings rookie goaltender Petr Mrazek. Mrazek, a former Ottawa 67's star, held the Sens scoreless until MacArthur put one past him with 4:02 left in the game. The win seemed miraculous at the time and was the most important game of the year.
Only an overtime loss to the Leafs marred what would have been a seven game win streak to complete the regular season schedule.
Now, three games down to the legendary Montreal Canadiens, the Sens have come face to face once again with the challenge of winning four games in a row to advance to the next round. Fortunately, they have faced this challenge successfully before. And, I believe they can do it again.
My friend Emanuel from Montreal, a teammate from my playing days in Switzerland, texted me after Sunday night's loss to say that the Habs are 53-5 lifetime after leading 2-0, and have never lost when up three games to none.
While those odds are acknowledgeably long for the Senators, there is always a first time. Why not now? Why can't the Habs perfect record come to an end versus the Sens in this, our miracle season? It's been done before, most notably last year when the LA Kings rebounded from 3-0 to defeat the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the playoffs, before going on to win the Stanley Cup.
The Senators have only come up short by 1-goal in each loss thus far. Swinging the results in their favour shouldn't require major changes in their game. Rather than major adjustments, the Sens need to do a better job of capitalizing on their opportunities. Dominating play for long periods of time, like they did in the first period of Sunday's game, isn't good enough in the playoffs. You need to score goals when you get the chance. Games 2 and 3 were games Ottawa let get away. This series could very easily be 2-1 in Ottawa's favour right now. Or at least 1-2 Montreal rather than 3-0.
For the Senators to overcome this challenge, I believe they need to do three things better:
1) Play with more edge
I don't think any of the Senators players realized just how dirty a team the Montreal Canadiens are. Even though it's part of the game, the degree of targeted violence in game 1 especially, has been noted by a number of Sens players. PK Subban's antics have distracted and detracted from the magic that helped the Senators achieve the unachievable just to make the playoffs.
To get their mojo back, the Senators need to play with more edge. They need to win the battles in the corners, along the boards and in front of the net. They need to drive the net rather than make pretty passes. They need to shoot more, of course, but with traffic in front of Price and with the intention of creating rebounds just as much as scoring. Why? Because if you're looking to create a rebound, it's means you're hitting the net with your shot, something the Senators have had trouble acomplishing this year.
2) Re-unite magical cast
The Sens late season magic occurred with a specific line up in place and with Andrew Hammond in net. Strange as it may seem, the Senators play better with Hammond in the net. In fact, they are a completely different team. Another former teammate from my Nepean Raiders days, tells me that Hammond is less critical of his teammates than Anderson and Lehner. I hope this isn't the case, but with a young team, this could very well be the reason they play better in front of Hammond. Whatever the reason, there is no denying the Senators are a different team with Hammond in goal.
The Anderson experiment didn't work Sunday night. And even though Craig Anderson played very well, the late third period goal against coupled with the weak winning goal in overtime by Dale Weisse, tarnished his performance. The Sens magic started with Hammond. I believe he deserves a chance to start at home and kick start another Senators win streak. A return, as much as possible, to the winning Sens lineup can only help their cause.
3) Have fun - Nothing to lose
At the end of the day, the Senators should not be feeling any pressure. The fact that they even made the playoffs was a tremendous surprise. And while we don't want to be satisfied with just making the playoffs, there's no doubt no one picked the Senators to make it ahead of the Boston Bruins.
If the Senators want to regain the magic that lifted them into the playoffs and so inspired their fans, they need to rediscover the fun of playing hockey. This is especially true of Bobby Ryan who you can actually see gripping his stick too tightly. My advice to Sens players is to go out there and play like you are kids on the outdoor rink. Run and gun--out skate the Canadiens--forecheck like there is no tomorrow. Pressure their defence, continue to hit them hard but have fun while you're doing it. Anything you do is a lot easier to do when you take pleasure in it.
Playing hockey professionally is the dream of many Canadian kids. The Sens have a young team with a number of impressive rookies. From Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and JG Pageau to Andrew Hammond, Mark Boroweicki and Curtis Lazar, these kids have all had impressive years by playing with skill, intensity and passion. It's time now, with their back against the wall, to just let go and play for the love of the game. Play because you love to play. Enjoy every minute of it and you will find that magical feeling will return to rekindle the good fortune the Senators need to get back into this series.