NEW YORK — Fans of the Ottawa Senators have already been smacked upside the head by Game 7.
Over the years, they have awoken in a cold sweat reliving the Derek Plante overtime shot that trickled off Ron Tugnutt’s trapper (1997), they’ve known the agony of being shut out by the rival Maple Leafs (2002). They don’t need to be reminded about the Jeff Friesen last-minute goal in the conference final of 2003 or Joe Nieuwendyk bamboozling Patrick Lalime in 2004 (oh, those Leafs).
All this in previous Game 7s: Four times tried, four times failed.
In the hours leading up to Game 7 at Madison Square Garden between the Senators and Rangers in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal, is it fair to damn this 2011-12 roster with the sins of their forebears?
Yes and no, actually.
Yes, because fans live and die with the history, lore and tradition of their favorite sporting team. Not one member of the 2004 Boston Red Sox was responsible for trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920, but nearly a century of Sox teams carried that burden until the Sox won the World Series in ‘04.
No, because, as Senators centre Jason Spezza reminds us, Erik Condra and Zack Smith wouldn’t know Ricard Persson from Derek Plante.
“We’re almost 22 different guys,” Spezza says. It’s a whole different makeup, a whole different group.”
This is true. On the Senators current roster, only Daniel Alfredsson played in all those series that went to seven games. Chris Phillips and Chris Neil were in three of the four series and Spezza, still a kid at the time, played a cameo role in 2003 and 2004.
Unlike those editions of the Senators, which tended to fold under pressure, this year’s team actually built a reputation for resilience, for dramatic, third-period comebacks and clutch performances.
As one Ottawa fan said this week at a local grocery store, the Senators were counted out of the playoff picture nearly all season long. Nothing was expected of a re-tooled roster. Now, they’re underdogs heading into Game 7? Same scenario. Hell, Las Vegas oddsmakers had the Senators as ‘dogs at home in Game 6 versus New York (inside information?).
While the pendulum appears to have swung mightily in New York’s direction, with the Rangers coming off their best game of the series, the Senators feel they just might have the Rangers where they want them, and not because the Blueshirts themselves have won only three of eight Game 7s.
Whether it’s their inner sports shrink talking, or the players themselves, they would have us believe it is so.
“We’re generally excited to be in a Game 7, we find ourselves in a good position,” Spezza says. “There’s a lot of pressure on them. We have a chance to spoil their season. They finished in first place. We have a chance to make ours a real successful one.”
That they do, and a chance to make amends for a Game 6 collapse that left the team feeling sheepish about unraveling the way it did. For a bunch of reasons, the Senators play a more natural game on the road, a simpler game. Many teams do, which only partially explains these playoffs, where road teams are essentially kicking butt (28-17 heading into last night’s game in Boston).
Most coaches agree they’d rather be on home ice for a Game 7, although Senators head coach Paul MacLean, noting the seeming disadvantage at home this spring says, “there is no home ice, it’s a different game every night.”
If fans and media are going to dredge up the Senators Game 7 history, they ought to consider the history of the 1 vs. 8 matchup in NHL Game 7 playoffs, as Sportsnet’s Ian Mendes did on his Sportsnet blog Wednesday morning.
Six times the top seed has been extended to seven games by the lowest playoff seed and in four of those meetings, the No. 8 seed has won. Four of the six winners were also road teams, somewhat defying the historic trend toward home ice winners (65 per cent, 89-51 win-loss record).
With their affinity for MSG, the Senators should carry some confidence. Twice, they beat the Rangers here during the season, and then twice more in the three previous New York home games of this series.
Senators goaltender Craig Anderson has no clue why that may be. Someone asked if the arena “lighting” — and I used that word loosely — was especially to his liking. (Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas implied earlier this season that he was no fan of MSG, but used to say he liked the lighting at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa).
“We’ve had success in that building, there’s no rhyme nor reason for it,” said Anderson, paraphrasing Shakespeare. “Maybe we match up well.”
The organization believes it does.
Spezza vows there will mojo in Manhattan, from a group “determined to erase the memory of a sloppy Game 6 at home.
“It’s one game, it’s 1 versus 8, anyone can win and have an opportunity to move on,” Spezza said.
“We’re excited to get playing this game and see what we’ve got.”
They’re not the only ones.