Head coach Paul MacLean hoped he might “find something under the tree.”
He was joking about Wednesday, Christmas Day, of course, but hoping an early gift Monday might give him some small hope for the New Year in a hockey season that has, so far, been largely played with lumps of coal by his Ottawa Senators.
The Pittsburgh Penguins delivered early, handing MacLean and his Senators a 5-0 victory in the final match for Ottawa before the NHL’s Christmas Break.
On a day filled with Ontario travel advisories, MacLean finally found some of that treasured “traction” he’s been seeking. His team didn’t get scored on first. His team didn’t squander a lead. His team didn’t, for the first time in several weeks, offer up a dog of a period that, more often than not, has cost them any chance of rising through the standings to a playoff hope.
It seemed, on paper, rather implausible that something good could come of this match at Canadian Tire Centre. The Penguins came in leading the eastern conference with a 27-10-1 record, while the Senators were an uninspiring 14-17-7.
The Penguins, however, were playing their seventh game in 11 days and were badly beat up, missing 10 players, several of them – Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi, Tanner Glass – important cogs in the Penguins machine.
Even so, Pittsburgh had still won seven games in a row and their captain, Sidney Crosby, was on a personal 10-game points streak, running away with the NHL scoring race with 54 points.
“Against some good teams we play well,” MacLean had said during the morning skate.
It certainly turned out to be the case this night, as the Senators surprised the powerful Penguins and gave them a whipping that seemed out of sorts for both sides.
The start of the game, however, held more fright than delight for the sellout crowd of 19,838.
Barely three minutes into the opening period, Crosby came flying up the ice and tried to split the Ottawa Senators defence, only to have Ottawa’s big Marc Methot catch him with a perfect hip check. Crosby flew into the air, his skate narrowly missing linemate Pascal Dupis’ face before slamming into his leg. Dupis went down in the heap, had to be helped off the ice, and did not return.
Another three minutes in and rookie Ottawa defenceman Cody Ceci fired a shot hard into the Pittsburgh end – and dead straight at referee Dean Morton. Morton managed to twist but took the full shot in his back and lay on the ice for several moments before being taken off to the Senators dressing room for examination. Morton did return to the game.
It hardly looked like a night for miracles.
In the ensuing faceoff, Ottawa’s Colin Greening got the puck back to Ceci, who this time fired a long hard shot at the goal, instead of an official. Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made the pad save but Ottawa centre Zack Smith lifted the puck past Fleury for a 1-0 Ottawa lead and Smith’s seventh goal of the season.
In the second period, it seemed Pittsburgh would soon tie the match. But forward Chris Connor missed an empty Ottawa net when he hoisted the puck over the crossbar. Brandon Sutter, on a shorthanded breakaway, fired a hard shot straight into the glove of Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson.
The Senators moved ahead 2-0 when Bobby Ryan perfectly tipped a Chris Phillips point shot between the pads of Fleury. For Ryan, it was his team-leading 17th goal of the season.
Erik Karlsson made it 3-0 early in the third period when, on a spectacular effort, he flew up the ice with the puck, turned Pittsburgh defenceman Olli Maatta inside out, and ripped a wrist shot over the glove of Fleury.
“It kind of killed the game a bit,” said Karlsson of the dramatic goal.
It was Karlsson’s 10th goal of the season and 36th point, making him both the Senators’ leading scorer and top point-getter among all NHL defencemen.
Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma had said earlier in the day that his team would have to work hard to make sure “65” – Karlsson’s number – wasn’t allowed to run up and down the ice at will. It was a good plan, but badly executed.
Karlsson took his total to 37 points on a spectacular set-up late in the third that allowed Kyle Turris to score his ninth of the year.
Moments later it was 5-0 when little Ottawa forward Cory Conacher ended a long drought by getting his third of the year when he was allowed to pound several times at a Jason Spezza rebound.
For Fleury, hoping to impress Team Canada officials with his stellar goaltending so far this year, it was not a good night to be thinking Sochi and the 2014 Winter Games.
It was, however, a very good night for the Ottawa Senators, even if they were playing a tired Penguins team largely staffed by AHL players. It was also a welcome for Ottawa’s much-criticized captain.
“I didn’t expect us to be three games under .500,” Spezza had said in the morning. “I expected us to be fighting for a playoff spot.
“It’s frustrating. At times we’ve shown life and at times it seems like we’re coming out of it.”
If they are indeed coming out of it, the test will come early – back-to-back games against the powerful Boston Bruins once they get Christmas out of the way.
But, for the time being, there is a little Christmas cheer in Ottawa.
“We played well from the first drop of the puck,” said Karlsson.
“It’s a good feeling for the break,” added Spezza.
“And then come back strong.”
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