It is The Punch Imlach Rule for the playoffs.
Don’t aggravate the opposition. Don’t wake up the bear.
Imlach, while coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, slagged Rogatien Vachon as a “junior B goalie” in the spring of 1966. The putdown so outraged and inspired Vachon that the following season he helped take his Montreal Canadiens to the 1967 Stanley Cup final, losing to the Leafs in the last Cup Imlach’s teams would win.
No one told the Ottawa Senators’ Eric Gryba about Punch. Gryba wasn’t even born until 21 years after that Cup. And the Saskatoon native didn’t play in the NHL until the middle of this February. So how could he know?
While other Senators smartly refrained from sticking pointy sticks in the tiger’s cage, the young Ottawa defenceman happily told Sportsnet that his team would have the killer instinct to finish off the Montreal Canadiens, given that the Senators were already up 3-1 in this best-of-seven opening round.
“We can smell blood,” he said. “We can taste blood, and it’s time to put them away.”
The word “blood” was a most unfortunate choice, given that it had been Gryba’s crushing hit on Montreal’s Lars Eller in the opening game that had sent the Canadiens’ forward crashing to the ice, teeth and blood flying.
By Thursday morning the Senators were in damage control, Gryba not available to talk, and various teammates trying to explain away his unfortunate choice of words.
“No one who knows him,” Ottawa centre Zack Smith said, “or has been around him at all actually believes that he meant that in any disrespect to Eller or in terms of the hit.”
Smith should have stopped there. But didn’t. “In other cases,” he continued, “players say stuff that kind of fuels the other team. But in that case I’m sure the guys on the other team know he didn’t mean it in that way – [as in] that he meant literal blood, as in the Eller hit.”
A tough one to wrap your mind around. But an easy one if the Canadiens were looking for any motivation. And how could they not be, one loss away from elimination and suddenly without captain Brian Gionta (bicep), No. 1 goaltender Carey Price (lower body) and agitators Brandon Prust and Ryan White?
And yet, Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean kept saying he was “scared to death” about what might happen.
Scared, with good cause.
The Canadiens, after all, were now them in a way – riddled with injuries to key players, just as the Senators had been earlier in losing Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, Milan Michalek and Craig Anderson for long stretches while remaining in a playoff position.
“We know adversity can lead to opportunity,” MacLean said before the game. “We’ve done it.”
But there was one more critical factor: the Ottawa Senators’ inability to finish off an opponent.
A year ago they had the New York Rangers on the ropes, leading 3-2 and playing at home when the Senators went into meltdown. That game is most remembered for a bench tantrum – complete with smashed stick and stomped water bottles – thrown by the player least expected, captain Daniel Alfredsson.
The Rangers won that one and won again in Game 7. End of season.
“We’re kind of desperate to win a playoff series,” MacLean said. “We haven’t done that, at least since I’ve been here.”
They hadn’t done it, in fact, since 2007, the year they went to the Stanley Cup final and lost to the Anaheim Ducks.
Craig Anderson understood the advisability of closing out fast. “You want to strike while the iron is hot,” the Senators’ goaltender said. “You want to finish an opponent at the earliest you can.”
And yet, at the same time he conceded: “Mentally it’s a lot easier knowing that we have a couple of chances,” precisely the mentality that got them in such trouble a year ago.
Anderson was willing to give all. With the wounded Canadiens coming out like a spring bear, it was Anderson who withstood the early onslaught.
Anderson’s steadiness gave his teammates time to wait for opportunity and it was Smith who made good on their first chance, slipping a rebound behind Peter Budaj, who had the unfortunate assignment of replacing the injured Price.
With the Senators quickly moving two goals in front, it seemed a repeat playoff meltdown was impossible.
Right up until P.K. Subban drilled a shot past Anderson on a Montreal power play. In the second period, the Senators scrambled through a series of dumb penalties and, on one of their own power plays, let Montreal’s Colby Armstrong slip up the middle and fire a shot that beat Anderson glove side, only to ring off the post.
Perhaps it was the clang of iron that woke them up, but the Senators ceased their meltdown as quickly as they had started it, methodically moving toward an easy 6-1 victory, the Canadiens seemingly resigned by the third period to their fate.
It was time. Time to put them away, but with the sweet taste of victory, please. No more blood.