The nation's capital can be a most conservative town. Don't change the governments, don't change the schools, don't even change the bus routes. On Monday, they were even bitching about the change in the weather.
Perhaps there is good reason for being suspicious of too much change.
In political terms, the Brian Mulroney line usually holds true – “You dance with the one that brung ya” – while in hockey circles the mantra has always been “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”
How, then, to explain the 2011-12 Ottawa Senators? Little more than a year ago they concluded it was indeed broke, the “fix” deemed so complicated – basically “new lamps for old” – that it would take years for them to reach the playoffs. It took one.
New head coach Paul MacLean seems to have little sense of what has always held true in hockey: Don't fiddle. He turns serial fighter Zenon Konopka into a playoff faceoff specialist. His team wins Game 4 in Ottawa in this best-of-seven series against the Rangers and what does he do? He changes his lineup for Game 5. Out with Bobby Butler, in with Mark Stone, a Western junior-league player who has never so much as smelled an NHL game nor, for that matter, had ever set foot in the Big Apple.
And what happens? The 19-year-old not only plays a solid two-way game, but he threads a needle with a pass through legs that gives Jason Spezza the only goal Ottawa would need to win the game.
Having won Game 5, what does MacLean now do? Out with Stone and in with 21-year-old Jakob Silfverberg, who has likewise never played an NHL game and who spent the year playing for Brynas in the Swedish Elite League, where he not only was chosen league MVP but led his team to the Swedish championship.
And what does Silfverberg do? He leaps over the boards for his first-ever shift, grabs a loose puck and fires the first shot of the game at Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Minutes later he chases down a New York two-on-one and takes the shot away. Superb at both ends and the anthem is still echoing in the rafters.
But that was about it.
There was another lineup change Monday night, but it had nothing to do with whim and everything to do with relief: the return of captain Daniel Alfredsson after missing more than three games because of concussion.
Alfredsson's presence – perhaps pressed too early into service – was all about bringing what he earlier called a little “poise with the puck” to a nervous team on the verge of taking down the No. 1 seed and advancing to the second round – when most experts had them finishing last or second-last this season.
The Senators were early on more poised than the Rangers, though both teams at times seemed jittery and uncertain. The Senators were calm, however, in the first power-play opportunity they had, defenceman Sergei Gonchar pounding a hard point shot that went in off Chris Neil for a 1-0 lead.
Too much change, like too much success, can make you dizzy, however, and there is really no other word to describe the Senators from that point on. Alfredsson, off skates for so long, seemed a bit sluggish. Silfverberg quickly faded. Spezza – reprimanded by his coach for not shooting during the third period of Game 4 – returned to old habits and very possibly had the shot that would have sealed the series, only to elect to hold, circle the net and lose possession.
The Senators very quickly fell apart in front of their 20,500 loving fans. Milan Michalek took a bad penalty to ruin an Ottawa power play, with Derek Stepan tying the game when New York gained the man advantage.
Where the Senators' focus went was a mystery. “You have to have something before you can lose it,” said a disappointed MacLean.
“We had a bad five minutes,” Spezza said. Actually, it was much more. They had but five good minutes.
Soon the whistles were writing the game story: Silfverberg took a bad penalty, which Ottawa survived, But later in the second period Filip Kuba ruined a second Ottawa power play by taking a bad penalty for hooking, only to have Nick Foligno turning that Ottawa power play opportunity into a Rangers 4-on-3, then 5-on-3 when he was called (wrongly) for goaltender interference on Lundqvist. Brad Richards soon scored for New York.
With Ottawa scrambling and the fans blaming the officials for everything from the weather to the Alberta election results, the Senators were doomed. Young NCAA star Chris Kreider scored on Senators goaltender Craig Anderson to make it 3-1 before this horrendous Ottawa second period had closed. Ottawa's Spezza would score on a scramble in the final minute of the game, but they could not catch up.
Alfredsson's personal frustration was taken out on water bottles. “I probably should be handling myself better.”
“Frustration is a useless emotion,” MacLean said.
“All that matters is how you finish it,” Lundqvist had said when asked earlier if a good start was important. And how right he was.
The 3-2 victory by the Rangers leaves the Senators and their coach in a delicate position. It is no longer a nice-to-win situation in Game 6 but a must-win in Game 7 to be played Thursday before the screaming hordes of Madison Square Garden.
And given what happened this night – a great start that simply disintegrated –MacLean may decide to do what served him so well in previous games.
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