It comes down to this: 60 minutes, three periods, one must-win game.
The Ottawa Senators, a squad that has battled through injuries to its top performers all season, stand on the cusp of eliminating the Montreal Canadiens, a team deprived of several of its best players at the time it needs them most.
In theory, this should be no contest.
But hockey games aren’t played on some theoretical plane, they’re decided on the ice by ferocious competitors.
If the appropriate sense of desperation comes easily to the depleted Habs, Ottawa coach Paul MacLean has also tried to gin some up with his team, which failed last year to close out the New York Rangers in the first round despite two opportunities – a loss on Thursday would surely rekindle anxious memories.
“We’re desperate to win a playoff series, which we haven’t done since I’ve been here,” he said.
MacLean is also mindful that just because a team is down doesn’t mean it’s out.
“We know that adversity can lead to opportunity,” he said, “we’ve done it.”
A leg injury to starting goalie Carey Price, who has been ruled out from returning to this series, means Montreal will be backstopped Thursday at the Bell Centre (7 p.m., RDS, CBC) by backup goaltender Peter Budaj: in his first career playoff start, Budaj faces his former goalie tandem partner in Colorado, Craig Anderson.
Habs coach Michel Therrien professed his complete faith in Budaj (five playoff appearances, .887 save percentage, 4.00 goals-against average) following a team practice, saying “every time we’ve called upon Peter this year, he’s played well.”
That’s true, strictly speaking, Budaj compiled an 8-1-1 record in the regular season (MacLean raised the mark, saying “that’s a pretty good goalie”) even if the one regulation loss was a 5-1 hammering against Ottawa.
The Habs have consoled themselves in the fact they’ve outplayed the Sens for significant swaths of the series, and Therrien said “I truly believe that if we keep playing our game, good things are going to happen.”
That’s an article of faith in the Habs’ dressing room, where the players are clearly irked at being down 1-3 to an opponent they clearly believe is inferior.
On Wednesday, defenceman P.K. Subban said “we can beat these guys, we’re better.”
MacLean’s tongue-in-cheek riposte on Thursday: “Who said that? Player 76? He’s right. They’re the second-seeded Montreal Canadiens and we’re the seventh-seeded Ottawa Senators.”
But, he later continued, no matter how you chop it up, the Sens have won three of four games so far in the series.
Not that MacLean is anywhere close to satisfied.
“You don’t get any prizes for winning three games,” he said.
MacLean will go with the same lineup that squeaked out a 3-2 overtime win in Game 4.
For Montreal, the absences of captain Brian Gionta (biceps tendon) and Brandon Prust (upper-body injury), deprive the Habs of speed and grit, but Therrien hopes playoff debutante Mike Blunden – who grew up in Ottawa – and youngster Gabriel Dumont, who has seen limited action in two playoff games, will be able to step to the fore.
It’s a time where someone has to, otherwise the Habs’ season will be over.