NEW YORK — Believe it?
The Senators and their fans can practically taste it, after a 2-0 win in Game 5 that sent an angry Madison Square Garden crowd into the streets of Manhattan in need of (another) stiff drink.
The Senators can clinch this Eastern quarterfinal series at Scotiabank Place on Monday (game time 7 p.m.) and advance to the second playoff round for the first time since 2007 when Ottawa reached the Stanley Cup final.
There is emotional as well as statistical significance to winning Game 5 of a series tied 2-2. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, in the history of the NHL playoffs the team that has won Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead has gone on to win that playoff 80 per cent of the time (173 out of 216 occurrences).
To the shock of the first-place Rangers, the 8th-seeded Senators are now in that position.
What’s better than going for a joy ride when you’re sitting in the driver’s seat?
Not that any of their victories has come easily, but this was the first of the three Ottawa wins that didn’t go to overtime, and the first in which the team had a lead to defend in regulation. Bonus.
“It would help to have a lead,” centre Jason Spezza had said before the game.
Spezza turned that theory into action, ripping a low shot past Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist at 9:18 of the first period. From there, the Senators smothered the Rangers to keep most of the shots on Senators goaltender Craig Anderson to the outside.
Spezza clinched the win with an empty net goal in the final minute.
“I’ve been working hard and it’s nice to get rewarded but at this time of year the most important things are wins,” Spezza said.
All of this, of course, minus captain Daniel Alfredsson who was back home in Ottawa recovering from a concussion. His teammates continue to win it for him, and for themselves.
“We’ve been a resilient bunch all year and nobody has given us much of a chance,” said Spezza. “It’s definitely something we can rally around.”
When the Rangers did break through, Anderson consistently frustrated New York shooters, as their sticks gripped tighter. With perhaps the finest goaltending performance in Senators playoff history, Anderson made 41 saves to earn the shutout. His pad saves on Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan game savers.
“This is centre stage for a lot of things,” Anderson said of posting the shutout at historic MSG. He looked comfortable on that grand stage.
Among their other attributes, the Senators killed off penalties as easily as plucking fruit from a low-hanging branch. In the first period alone the Rangers three times held a man advantage and failed to put a dent in the equipment of Anderson in the Ottawa goal, while the Senators protected an early 1-0 lead.
From the start this series has been too close to call.
But if Ottawa closes it out on Monday, it won’t be considered a close series, but a monumental upset of a Rangers team that was the class of the east, when games mattered less, in the regular season.
The Rangers top guys pushed, but the Senators pushed back, now full value for their first lead in the series.
As if decreed by a higher power, every time a Senators player was desperate to break out of a personal slump, the situation presented itself and the player delivered.
In Game 4, Kyle Turris was doubting himself until he fired the overtime wrist shot that tied the series. In the same game, Milan Michalek was feeling the heat from not having scored, and his second period goal launched the comeback from a two-goal deficit.
On Saturday, it was Spezza’s turn to score his first and second goals of the 2012 playoffs, and it brought the Senators their first regulation time lead at any point in the series. Adding to the team’s joy, 19-year-old prospect Mark Stone set up the play, earning his first NHL point on just his second NHL shift.
How do you like the league so far, kid?
“That was pretty special to get that assist in my first game in the NHL,” Stone said, breaking into a big grin in the visitors room. “It really means a lot to me.”
On the morning of the game, Stone was swarmed by a throng of media, the size of which he didn’t generally confront this season as a member of the WHL Brandon Wheat Kings.
The Rangers couldn’t catch a break anywhere. Brian Boyle, the most effective Ranger during their first three games, was leveled by a shoulder to head hit from Chris Neil in the third period and had to leave the game.
If Madison Square had its boxing ring on display, the Blueshirts would be on the ropes. Brad Richards has said of the Stanley Cup playoffs, they’re always “day to day.”
On the cliche front, the Rangers have slipped from day-to-day to do or die and the Senators are a win away from a big spring party.