The overtime goal by Chris Neil did so much more than win a hockey game.
It has energized the Senators “family” of players and fans, and breathed new life into a Stanley Cup playoff series that risked tilting the other direction had the Rangers held serve on home ice.
Ask yourselves this question, Senator Nation: If the Rangers picked up the necessary extra goal in the third period, or won the crapshoot that is overtime, and New York held a 2-0 series advantage today would you still be walking about with a spring in your step?
Not that the Rangers overwhelm teams with their talent – to this point they have not capitalized on their opportunities — but they are sound and solid, and still to be reckoned with. A two games to none lead with Henrik Lundqvist in goal might have been too much. Instead, there is belief this series could go long, might even go either way.
Since first qualifying for the playoffs in 1997, the Senators have not come back to win a series they trailed 2-0. Now they don’t have to attempt that trick. The series is even, home ice advantage – if there is such a thing — has swung back to Ottawa, thanks to an old-fashioned, smash-mouth, 3-2 OT win in New York. Saurday night was alright for fightin’ and given the intensity of the game– the Senators “responding” (coach Paul MacLean’s word) to the Rangers rough stuff in Game 1 – could there have been a more appropriate goal scorer than the tough guy Neil, putting his signature on the play with a toothless grin?
Games, sometimes an entire series, can turn on a single shift, or a puck off a skate blade. How big was that swift kick of the puck by Rangers defenceman Michael Del Zotto to put the Senators on the scoreboard in the middle period of Game 2?
All he had to do was let the puck slide past him, but Del Zotto’s instincts took over, a defenceman’s natural impulse to block, stop pucks coming his way. The hockey gods watch out for players who warrant their guidance – Erik Karlsson, the starling who directed that shot toward the Rangers net, earned the Del Zotto bounce by doing everything asked of him.
Essentially called out by head coach Paul MacLean for his listless play in Game 1 – “when he’s not skating, he’s not very good,” — Karlsson responded, rising to the challenge in supreme fashion.
“I’ve got to put rockets on my skates,” Karlsson had said, and soar he did, leaving Rangers in his vapour trail.
Afterward, in the heat of the winning dressing room, I reminded Karlsson about his “rocket” quote earlier in the day. He smiled, brushing a mop of sweaty hair from his brow. Just another day in the life of your average, skinny, 21-year-old Swedish superstar.
In 30 minutes of ice time, the kid pumped 10 shots at Henrik Lundqvist, matching Claude Giroux’s output during his six-point game for the Philadelphia Flyers against Pittsburgh. And if Karlsson didn’t get the “10 goals, 15 assists” he joked about trying to produce, his 10 shots, five hits and general brilliance all game long were sufficient.
“We wanted to be the team we were for most of the season,” said Karlsson, who was every bit and more the Norris candidate he was during the season. “It felt good.”
Still does, all over the National Capital Region and elsewhere that pockets of Senators fans reside.
It “felt good” for them just to experience the Stanley Cup playoffs again, so soon after commiting to a rebuilding program. Simply by qualifying for the postseason, this team has delivered an unexpected gift, but the players had other ideas, bigger goals. Eighth seed or not, they wanted to prove they belong in a series with the first-place Rangers, who did what they could to run the Senators out of the old rink in the opener.
The Senators escalated the battle in Game 2, managed to grind out a win, but lost their captain, Daniel Alfredsson, to a cheap shot in the process. We’ll learn more about the state of Alfredsson’s health on Monday.
Some have written or tweeted to say they were disgusted by the display of violence and almost routine hits to the head by players on both teams after a season in which player safety was the prevailing issue in the NHL. More head shots flowed in a wild Pittsburgh-Philadelphia game Sunday.
The general consensus around this town seems to be – the Rangers started it on opening night, the Senators reacted accordingly, did what it took to win and now there is the Carl Hagelin hit on Alfredsson hanging over the series.
“It’s going to get more intense as it goes on,” centre Jason Spezza said. “You can definitely feel the temperature rising.”
If it rises much more, this series may come down to survival of the fittest, a war of attrition.