The message was plain to see, on the ball cap worn by Senators owner Eugene Melnyk: Relax.
The Senators are finding that easier to do today, after Saturday’s 8-4 rout of the stately Pittsburgh Penguins.
Few among the Ottawa faithful expected this turn of events, so soon after the Senators dreadful loss in Montreal the previous night, but then they couldn’t have known that a raw backup goaltender would start in place of Marc Andre Fleury for Pittsburgh. The Senators took full advantage, pumping five goals past someone named Brad Thiessen in the first 40 minutes and adding three more in the third.
A packed Scotiabank Place was all abuzz for this national Hockey Night In Canada broadcast, what with hockey royalty in town, in the form of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and the hometown Senators desperate to stop the bleeding that was making the fan base nervous about playoff prospects. Once very secure in seventh place, clear of the riff raff below, four losses (two in extra time) in their previous five games had the team talking about a “must win” against the red hot Pens.
With that win comes relief and an expectation that fans will get to use those playoff tickets after all. The Senators probably will need two or three victories in their remaining six games to secure a playoff berth.
For today, they’ll settle for a huge boost in morale.
“Of course it is,” said captain Daniel Alfredsson, who led the way with two goals and two assists. “To lose the way we did in Montreal, then beat arguably the best team in the league is something to build on.”
As centre Jason Spezza noted, the Senators have had a tendency to rise up when top opponents show up. “Maybe it’s a bit of fear,” he said.
“We respect those guys,” Spezza said, securing the win with a breakaway goal on the outclassed Thiessen in the third. “They’re dangerous. We did a good job of making them cheat a bit, and we got chances off that.”
Thiessen was fearful every time time a puck came near his crease. Still, this was the Penguins, and the Senators knew they would need their A-game, led by their C-man, Alfredsson.
As an all-star forward and the NHL’s longest serving captain, Alfredsson is not awed easily, but even he sounded slightly awe-struck by the challenge the Penguins represent.
Alfredsson started the day singing the praises of a team with MVP candidate Evgeni Malkin, and the recently returned Crosby. They went home talking about how well old man Alfie played.
Fleury wasn’t the only Penguin with the night off. Malkin was invisible for most of the game, producing one shot on goal. All flash, no push this time out, the Penguins were practically strutting their depth, sending Crosby out to start the game with Pittsburgh’s third big centre, Jordan Staal, on his wing.
Allegedly a third liner as he eases his way back from his latest concussion, Crosby put on a show almost instantly, directing a Matt Cooke shot across the goal line for what looked like his first goal since Nov. 21. But no, the puck was already across the line, so Cooke picked up his sixth goal in the past five games – do you think he enjoys playing with No. 87?
This goal tied the score after an early one by Ottawa’s Milan Michalek, taking advantage of a juicy rebound from the fidgety Thiessen, starting just his fourth NHL game. Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma hardly sounded confident in his rookie backup.
“He’s played so little in the NHL, every game is a new experience for him,” Bylsma said. “He’s had home games, now he’s got a road game, playing an opponent that’s right in the playoff mix.”
As much as they talked about wanting to pass the New York Rangers for first place in the division and conference, not all of the Penguins looked that interested. They were due for their first regulation loss in more than a month.
To their credit, the Senators did a nice job of intercepting Penguins passes on their power play, and creating their own chances on turnovers.
Refusing to give in to his team’s off night, Crosby continued to battle, looking to regain his all-world form. He fed Cooke yet again, this time on a breathtaking spinarama backhand pass through Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson that Cooke redirected past Ottawa goaltender Ben Bishop. It was Crosby’s 20th assist of the season in his 14th game.
In the third period, trying to spark a team comeback, Crosby scored the first goal of his latest personal comeback.
With the score 2-1 after just 13 minutes, and neither of these recent AHL goalie grads inspiring confidence, a shootout – in regulation – came to be expected. The teams delivered on that early promise, producing a combined seven goals on the first 33 shots, and soon after, Bishop dropped from a low shot at his feet and didn’t get up. He left with a knee or groin injury, looking very uncomfortable as he left the ice, and had to be replaced by Craig Anderson, himself just back from the injured list.
Up next, another chapter to the goaltending drama, as Bishop will be assessed, and Robin Lehner of AHL Binghamton will be standing by.