The first Ottawa Senators car flags showed up around Manotick, coming up Highway 416 from a long day’s drive back from New York City.
You could sense the temperature rising as the temperature dropped.
The Senators and their nervous fans, out of the playoffs last year, out in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010 and swept by Pittsburgh in 2008, haven’t had much to get worked up about since the team reached the Stanley Cup final, and lost, in 2007 – but what a difference a single win, a funny bounce and a lucky backhand cuff in overtime can make.
The Senators left New York, by charter jet, with the split they so hoped for, winning the second game 3-2 in overtime while losing the first game of this best-of-seven playoff series 4-2.
The two matches had nothing in common. Game 2 on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden had everything Game 1 was lacking: intensity, drama, battles and – crucially – an Ottawa win when one seemed absolutely necessary.
Seven times the modern Senators have been down 2-0 in a playoff series – but have never come back to win the series. Game 3s, this one scheduled for Monday at Scotiabank Place, have previously proved critical to Ottawa’s hopes, as they have never won a series if trailing after the third game and have lost just once when leading after three games.
It cannot be said the Senators met a different New York Rangers team Saturday night, but it can fairly be said that the No. 1 Eastern Conference team in the regular season met a different Senators team. After seeing his superstar young defenceman Erik Karlsson manhandled and rendered ineffective Thursday in Game 1, Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean changed his lineup to make it decidedly more chippy and aggressive. And it appeared to pay off.
Little more than two minutes into the game, defenceman Matt Carkner, new to the Ottawa lineup, threw gigantic Rangers forward Brian Boyle, who had attacked Karlsson Thursday, to the ice and fell on him pounding. Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky came to Boyle’s assistance, leading to penalties that included Carkner and Dubinsky both being tossed from the game, with Carkner further scheduled to be dealt with by league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan.
The shift in tactics also appeared to cost the Senators, as half way through the game Carl Hagelin of the Rangers put an elbow so hard into the head of Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson that Alfredsson was forced to leave the game. Hagelin, as well, was to meet with Shanahan, while the Rangers and their fans complained that if Hagelin was going to be punished further for his elbow, then Senators defenceman Chris Phillips should, as well, for his elbow on Rangers captain Ryan Callahan.
It was not clear Sunday whether Alfredsson would return to the lineup. The injury could conceivably have a galvanizing effect on the team, should captain-in-waiting Jason Spezza be able to elevate his game to compensate.
“It’s going to get more intense as the series goes on,” Spezza predicted. “The temperature is obviously rising.”
“It’s going to get elevated every night,” Boyle of the Rangers promised.
Regardless of whatever action Shanahan might take, it seemed the tone had been set for the rest of the series.
“This is old time hockey,” said Zenon Konopka, a serial fighter also inserted into Ottawa’s lineup Saturday. “There are going to be a lot of stitches and blood before this one is done. It’s going to be a fun series.”
It’s also already feeding into the rising controversy about the NHL’s stated commitment to maintain officiating and supplemental discipline standards in the postseason. Many hockey fans and commentators are already saying slippage is taking place.
It seemed virtually a given Saturday that the Senators were about to join the elite teams of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, Vancouver Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins, by falling to a 2-0 disadvantage, but with 4 minutes 37 seconds left in regulation, Konopka bounced a puck through New York defenceman Marc Staal’s legs and Nick Foligno managed to chip the puck past New York’s much-praised goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
This tied the game 2-2, New York with goals from Anton Stralman and Boyle and Ottawa with a lucky marker when Karlsson bounced a puck in off the skate of Rangers defenceman Michael Del Zotto.
The tie led to Chris Neil’s overtime winner just 1:17 into the first extra period. In a mad scramble around Lundqvist the puck ended up on Neil’s backhand and he found the slight opening between Lundqvist and his right post.
“That’s the kind of goals you win with,” Neil said.
“I lost track of the puck,” Lundqvist said of the scramble. “There are going to be bad bounces, but you just move on.”
Karlsson, who had said before the match that he needed to put “rockets” on his skates, was significantly more a factor in Game 2 than he had been in Game 1. But the Senators, a No. 8 seed up against a very strong and very deep No. 1 seed, will need him at that level and even higher for what promises to be a ferocious Game 3.
“We’re going to play it like it’s our last,” Karlsson promised.