At Madison Square Garden on Saturday, party balloons were launched in the crowd prior to Game 5 between the Senators and New York Rangers.
In Ottawa Monday night, the Senators and their fans will keep the party on hold until the fourth win is in the books – and the city is primed to see it on home ice. It’s been five years since the Senators won a playoff series here.
The trick for the home team will be to keep thinking of themselves as the humble little giant killers, and not the giants themselves.
Leading the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Rangers three games to two, the Senators plans involve coming home to close.
Game 6 is at Scotiabank Place (note the 7 p.m. start time) and a full house at the Bank will be a noisy clinch mob, even noisier if captain Daniel Alfredsson can make a triumphant return.
After skating for a full practice session on Sunday, Alfredsson declared himself “hopeful” of being in the lineup for Game 6, able to go if he feels as good as he did on Sunday.
That everything has fallen into place for the Senators so far, and out of sorts for the Rangers, is among the reasons Ottawa leads this series.
Given the events of the first two weeks of the Stanley Cup playoffs, it will be difficult for the Senators and their followers not to get ahead of themselves. In the NHL’s Upside Down World, favorites are under siege, paving the way for a lower seed to potentially roll through to the conference final.
Who could have imagined a month ago that the Senators would link up with a Rangers team they handled three of four times in the regular season, now with a strong chance to advance and possibly hook up with the Florida Panthers (currently ahead 3-2 versus New Jersey), a team Ottawa has historically dominated. The No. 2-seed Boston remains alive after surviving an elimination game Sunday and will play a Game 7 vs. Washington.
First, for the Senators, there is the small matter of dispensing with the Rangers.
The last time the Senators closed out a series on home ice: April 19, 2007, the Senators completed a first round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, The Pens were led by a young centre named Sidney Crosby. Ottawa won Game 5 at Scotiabank Place 3-0.
Remember who scored the game-winning goal for the Senators? That’s right, Dany Heatley.
As interesting as the Senators state of mind (can’t get giddy) for Game 6 will be the state of mind of the Rangers. Are they beyond the point of being discouraged?
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, in particular, looked despondent after Saturday’s loss, in the what-do-I-have-to-do to get a win kind of way.
In the past three games of the series, ‘King Henry’ has given up a total of four goals and yet has just one win in the three. He needed a shutout to get it, a 1-0 victory in Game 3.
In the sereis, Lundqvist has a .945 save percentage and 1.78 goals-against average. Those are usually the goalie numbers associated with a winning team. Craig Anderson’s numbers for Ottawa are practically a mirror reflection: .943 and 1.79.
“This is far from over,” Lundqvist said post-game.
The visitors will need a break to get back in this. And while they get rookie forward Carl Hagelin back from suspension, centre Brian Boyle, the Rangers MVP to this point of the series, was knocked woozy on a hit by Senators winger Chris Neil and is not expected to play in Game 6.
“He’s concussed, he’s out,” said Rangers head coach John Tortorella, who was livid about the Neil hit. NHL authorities did not agree. Neil did not receive a penalty on the play and the NHL did not take any disciplinary action.
While pleased at accomplishing the go-ahead win on Saturday, Ottawa’s team leaders are guarding against cockiness in the ranks.
“We know we’re going to get their best,” said Jason Spezza, who scored both of Ottawa’s goals in the 2-0 Game 5 win, the second one into an empty net. “One thing you learn is that the toughest game is to put a team out of the playoffs.”
Sometimes. And sometimes a team loses its will. An early Senators goal could be too much for the Rangers to overcome.
As they did before their last games in Ottawa, the Senators are counting on energy from the stands.
“They’ve been great all series,” Spezza said, of a Senators audience that raised as much clamour as the building has heard in years.
The chance to dispose of the Rangers at SBP, is a “challenge” the team relishes, Spezza said.
Maybe this will be the night the goals come quickly and easily and the play opens up, but don’t count on it. Smothering defence and stellar goaltending has been on the menu all series.
“We play every game like it’s going to be 1-0,” Spezza said. “I think it’s that approach that’s let us have success to this point.”
Yes, the Senators have what Spezza called “two chances to close it out,” but they really don’t want to need both.
“Hopefully,” Spezza said, “we can do it in front of our crowd.”