MONTREAL — Perhaps nobody bothered to tell the Ottawa Senators’ rookie forwards that inexperienced players aren’t supposed to have instant success in the NHL playoffs.
“I think it has been good for us, just going out there and playing and doing what we do, and the whole ‘not knowing what it’s all about thing’ is maybe good in a way,” Mika Zibanejad suggested following practice in Ottawa Wednesday. “We do have a lot of experienced guys who know what you need to do to go far, so it’s a good mix, just letting the young guys go and do their thing.”
After the Senators pulled off the craziest magic trick imaginable to defeat the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 in overtime Tuesday at Scotiabank Place to take a 3-1 series lead, they’re in position to advance to the second round with a victory Thursday at the Bell Centre.
While the leadership of Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Phillips, Chris Neil and Sergei Gonchar has been instrumental, they also wouldn’t be here without the contributions of their rookie crew.
— In Game 1 last Thursday, 22-year-old Jakob Silfverberg beat Canadiens goaltender Carey Price with a slapshot that tied the game 2-2, the first of three in the third period goals in the 4-2 victory.
— In Game 3 Sunday, 20-year-old Jean-Gabriel Pageau caused wild celebrations on both sides of the Ottawa River with his unlikely hat trick, scoring the Senators’ second, third and sixth goals in a 6-1 romp by the Senators.
— In Game 4 Tuesday, the Senators pulled off their stunning comeback with the aid of two more first-year players. Zibanajed, who turned 20 three weeks ago, gave them life by scoring with eight minutes left. With time ticking down and goaltender Craig Anderson on the bench for an extra skater, Senators coach Paul MacLean told 23-year-old Cory Conacher to go directly to the front of the net. He did just that, burying the puck in the slot underneath Price with only 22.6 seconds left, tying the game 2-2.
Again, it’s not supposed to happen like this in the NHL playoffs, is it? Think back to the NHL trade deadline, when most of the fuss was about the front-running teams overspending to add veteran experience to carry them through the tough post-season battles.
“I try to say that nothing surprises me, but if you don’t give them the opportunity, they can’t step up, either,” said MacLean. “The coach can’t always get wrapped up in what somebody did at a certain part of the game. You have to find a way to win. You have to have the right people on the ice to try and win a game.”
The fact Zibanejad and Conacher were even given the chance to make a difference is intriguing. Leading up to his goal, Zibanejad had experienced a rough night, unable or unwilling to raise his intensity to match the increased determination by the Canadiens. In short, showing the inconsistency that might be expected from a first-year player.
“No, it wasn’t my best game last night, but you want to be out there to make up for it or whatever you want to call it,” said Zibanejad. “I got a second opportunity and I was all set to go.”
Conacher, meanwhile, was in the Chateau Bow-Wow for his giveaway early in the second period, which led directly to the Canadiens’ second goal by Alex Galchenyuk. He was stapled to the bench for extended periods, asked to watch and learn about simple, effective playoff hockey from the older players.
When he got the nod in the final seconds, he acknowledges being surprised.
“I was excited,” he said. “I guess it was a good move by the coach because I was goal hungry and I would do everything I could to get that goal.”
Conacher says he felt the weight of the earlier mistake throughout the game because “you feel like you let your team down a little bit.”
Conacher, Zibanejad, Silfverberg and Pageau all credit the veterans for aiding in the adjustment to post-season hockey.
“Guys like Neil, Alfredsson, Phillips, the guys who have been here, been in the playoffs,” said Conacher. “They’re the guys to talk to, they kind of calm nerves down a little bit.”
By the same token, MacLean says the team’s use of younger players is in keeping with what is still an organization in rebuilding mode.
“With our core of leadership, it’s easier to use younger players,” he said. “But the quality of the players we’ve been able to put into the lineup is very high. If they were not good enough players, we probably wouldn’t put them on the ice.”