It isn’t quite up there with believing in the Easter Bunny, but it’s still worth imaging.
In fact, had this highly-irregular regular season come to an end on Wednesday, it would have produced an opening-round Stanley Cup playoffs featuring the Montreal Canadiens against the Ottawa Senators and the Winnipeg Jets facing off against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It would not be just the broadcasters and beer sellers cheering – but most of the country, Stanley Cup dry since 1993 and grown rather weary of Stanley Cup finals that take place in faraway places during precious late spring evenings when sensible northerners would rather be outside.
True hockey fans know that the first round is the best anyway, and one that could, on alternate nights, feature these four Canadian teams – followed every second night by Vancouver Canucks versus whomever – would be treasured indeed.
Thursday evening, as the New York Rangers skated out to play – and eventually lose 3-0 to – the Ottawa Senators, the potential match-ups were somewhat different: Montreal playing the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa meeting Boston Bruins, Winnipeg-Toronto and the poor Rangers meeting the Sidney-Crosby-Jarome-Iginla Pittsburgh Penguins. By the end of the night, they were different again.
With the Eastern Conference teams playing only each other, however, small shifts happen each night – and the possibility of that Habs-Sens, Jets-Leafs tandem is not just a one-day fantasy. It could still happen – just as it can still happen that one or more of the eastern four might stumble and fall out of a playoff position.
Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean joked earlier in the day that, following the trade that brought Calgary Flames captain Iginla to the Penguins – with a social media stop along the way in Boston – “I don’t know why we’re going to bother playing the playoffs.”
But the real joke is on all the experts, who said: 1. Montreal Canadiens were going to end up in last place; 2. Ottawa Senators could not possibly withstand the injuries to Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson; 3. The Jets won’t make the playoffs; and 4. The Leafs are the Leafs and, of course, will wilt and fall in spring.
We experts are fools – but enjoying every minute of it. The possibilities inherent in a Highway 417 series – the “Pesky Sens” against the iconic Glorieux – and Winnipeg with a chance to get back at Toronto for everything from Depression bank closures to mosquito jokes….the imagination soars.
The same could not, however, be said for this match at Scotiabank Place. The endlessly shot-blocking and suffocating Rangers, ironically, had been the pick of many “experts” to march to the Stanley Cup final. But, as head coach John Tortorella put it Thursday morning, “We have struggled, to me, blocking shots.” Proof, we take it, that there is indeed a God.
In stretches, this game reached such levels of boredom that it paled in comparison to the excitement of seeing two teams of players in their 60s and 70s – oldest one 79 – play some shinny between the second and third period.
By that point it was 1-0 Ottawa, the singular goal coming on a late Ottawa power play when little defenceman Andre Benoit, took a point shot that ticked off something on the way to the Rangers net and blew past New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Tortorella cannot be pleased with either his team’s power play or its penalty kill. “We have given power play units second opportunities when the puck should be down the ice,” he said. And when the Rangers had their own power plays, the puck was again down the ice – but invariably to the Ottawa advantage.
“Our penalty kill was really good,” said Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson. “We continue to play well at home.”
Chances were rare in this game. And it wasn’t entirely the sputtering Rangers. Ottawa could not capitalize on golden opportunities, usually missed by checking centre Jim O’Brien, who had a breakaway foiled by a charging Lundqvist and who later could not get his stick on a bouncing puck when the Rangers net was as open as the Lincoln Tunnel.
The highlight of the third period was a leaping stop 6’7” Ottawa goaltender Ben Bishop made off a superb chance by Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh to save what would be the goaltender’s first shutout with the Senators.
“I realized I was in big trouble,” Bishop said of the highlight save. “So in the last second I just dove over there.”
Moments later, the Senators came up ice and rookie centre Mika Zibanejad fed a lovely pass to Guillaume Latendresse, who fired a short wrist shot past Lundqvist on the goalie’s stick side.
Colin Greening finished off the scoring with an empty net goal after Lundqvist had been pulled for an extra attacker as the game wound down.
With the 3-0 victory the Senators have now won three straight and six of their last seven matches. The Rangers, despite exploding for five goals against the Philadelphia Flyers for a 5-2 win Tuesday, are having a terrible time scoring.
“We got a lot of good pieces in here,” said low-scoring centre Brad Richards. “We’ve just got to play better.”
His coach would agree. Asked earlier in the day for his thoughts on the Iginla trade to Pittsburgh, Tortorella answer was telling.
“I got enough to worry about.”