It seemed like a battle of parallel universes.
The Winnipeg Jets came into Ottawa standing 11 in the Western Conference; the Senators stood 11 in the Eastern Conference.
After 42 games each, the two small-market Canadian teams were both huddling around .500 – Ottawa with 41 points on a 17-18-7 record, Winnipeg with 43 points after going 19-18-5.
Both teams were on minor, but hugely welcome, winning streaks: Winnipeg having won three in a row, Ottawa looking for its third in a row.
Both goaltenders were suddenly hot, after struggling mightily earlier in the season: Winnipeg’s Al Montoya having won six consecutive starts and Ottawa’s Craig Anderson brilliant in recent wins against Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I think both teams are evenly matched,” Jets head coach Claude Noel said before the puck dropped. “Look at the numbers and they’re pretty close. They’ve got a two-game streak, we’ve got a three-game, so there are things on the line. Both teams are trying to get themselves going a little bit.”
Following the script perfection, the two teams took turns scoring. They were tied after two periods. And when it was all over, the Senators had matched Winnipeg’s three-game streak by taking this match 4-3, sending 18,691 relieved fans out into a bitterly cold Ottawa night.
“I think we’re starting to come together,” said Senators goaltender Craig Anderson, whose play has been key to the team’s recent success after an inconsistent first half of the season.
The Ottawa attack was led by Mika Zibanejad, playing in place of injured (hip) captain Jason Spezza on the first line. The 20-year-old Swede scored the game’s first goal halfway through the opening period when he crashed the Winnipeg net and was able to chip the puck in past Montoya.
Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien tied the game when his drifting shot from the point somehow eluded Anderson. The Senators again when ahead just before the end of the period when Milan Michalek, who has struggled terribly this season, was able to put a Zibanejad rebound past Montoya.
Winnipeg tied the game again in the second period when Evander Kane took a shot from deep in the left corner that struck Anderson in the back and ricocheted into the Ottawa net.
The Senators once again took the lead seven minutes into the third period when, shortly after Winnipeg’s Chris Thorburn put what seemed a sure goal off the Ottawa post, the Senators won a face-off in the Jets’ end and defenceman Marc Methot’s long shot from the point was tipped by centre Zack Smith past Montoya.
Clarke MacArthur finished off the Ottawa scoring when he was left alone and given a free chance at the open side of Montoya’s net.
Posts played a significant role in the game, as the Jets had multiple opportunities that were stymied by the steel pipes back of Anderson.
“Three posts that could have gone in,” said a frustrated Evander Kane, who hit one of them.
“A little bit of luck tonight, I think,” laughed Anderson. “There was four, maybe five.”
With less than six minutes to go, Winnipeg forward Olli Jokinen was fed a perfect pass by Byfuglien and beat Anderson to make it 4-3.
“That was an important two points there,” said MacArthur. “We got something rolling here now – three in a row.”
Winnipeg coach Noel thought his team had played “a decent game” but was frustrated by not having a single power-play opportunity during the 60 minutes of play.
“It’s hard to believe,” he said.
All seven of the goals were scored with the teams at even strength, the Jets outshooting the Senators 35-29. Anderson not only had more luck than Montoya, he was sharper when necessary.
One Senator who could not have taken much pleasure from this day was Bobby Ryan, the team’s top goal scorer who was rammed head first into the boards early on with no penalty and who spent the first part of the day dealing with a controversy of someone else’s making.
The day before, at the Winter Classic held in Michigan, USA Hockey had announced its team for the upcoming Sochi Winter Games. While Jets swift forward Blake Wheeler had been a surprise addition to the team, Ottawa’s Ryan was a very surprising omission.
Ryan had been on Team U.S.A. when the Americans won silver in Vancouver four years ago. He had fully anticipated another call this time. At 26, Ryan was just in his prime and, with 18 goals and 18 assists over 42 games was clearly one of a handful of top U.S. scorers in the NHL.
He was not named. Well, not exactly, as his name was all over the announcement thanks to an in-depth article on ESPN.com in which hockey writer Scott Burnside had been imbedded with the USA Hockey selection group through its decision process.
Ryan had been much discussed, but not in a kind way. He was described as being far too “passive” for the sort of team the Americans wished to ice in Sochi.
“He’s not intense,” Calgary Flames president Brian Burke told his fellow committee members. “That word is not in his vocabulary. It’s never going to be in his vocabulary.
“He can’t even spell intense.”
“I probably could get by,” Ryan tried to joke when a reporter challenged him to a spelling bee.
But, in truth, if Ryan was hurt by not being named he was crushed by being so cavalierly dismissed by the man who had once drafted him and whom he believed to be a friend.
Such comments, he felt, were “gutless” and unnecessary.
“You could have just cut me,” Ryan said. “You didn’t have to…Actually I almost feel degraded when it comes out like that. It is what it is. That’s their decision. That’s how they feel about it.
“I will remember it and use it as motivation.”
The Senators battle for one of the last playoff spots will happily use any motivation they can find.
“We believe we are improving,” said head coach Paul MacLean. “We believe we are finding our way, our identity.
“But we’re not ready to plan any parade routes.”