They pulled out all the stops.
The Queen’s Representative – Governor-General David Johnston, himself once a fine hockey player – was there to drop the puck aside various much-decorated admirals and generals, a military band on hand to offer a stirring anthem and a sellout crowd of 20,276 wanting to cheer and honk and drink long into the night once the Ottawa Senators finally clinched their playoff spot.
All that was required was a loss for the Winnipeg Jets, playing the Sabres in Buffalo, and a victory for the Senators over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
As only this cruel April could arrange matters, the Jets won 2-1 and the Senators fell 3-1 in a game in which they showed themselves far more golf-than playoff-ready.
“They were better than we were from start to finish,” said a disappointed Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean.
How could his team not win?
The Penguins had nothing to play for, having already cemented their No. 1 position in the eastern conference. They were missing their best two forwards in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, missing their No. 1 goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury, missing a top scorer in James Neal, all out with injuries, and would not have their top defenceman in the lineup, Kris Letang, suddenly felled by food poisoning.
All the stops, but could not stop the slide.
“We didn’t play the game the way we wanted to play,” said Senators centre Kyle Turris in a bit of an understatement.
The Senators also had a serious disagreement to settle, though they claimed revenge would not become a “distraction.” Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke had been the evil villain who lacerated the Achilles tendon of Ottawa’s Norris-Trophy-winning defenceman Erik Karlsson.
Senator’s owner Eugene Melnyk even said he was seeking forensic evidence to prove Cooke had used his left skate deliberately to maim Karlsson. The crowd was screaming “MATT COOKE SUCKS!!!” every time he took to the ice or touched the puck.
How could the Senators possibly fail?
And yet they did. They came out tentatively, played sloppily and often thoughtlessly – the malevolent Cooke drawing a Senators penalty barely two minutes into the match.
The Penguins, with nothing to play for, scored first on a lovely tic-tac-toe passing play that saw unknown Dustin Jeffrey fire a wrist shot past goaltender Craig Anderson, who had played positively brilliantly right up until the 4-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday. He was not sharp this night, either. But nor were any of his teammates.
“We’re concerned,” said Ottawa defenceman Marc Methot. “We’re aware of the (predicament) we’re in.”
Pittsburgh went ahead 2-0 when Brenden Morrow, the Dallas Stars captain picked up at the trading deadline, sent a puck out from behind the net to Jarome Iginla, the Calgary Flames captain picked up at the trading deadline.
Players like that do not miss.
The opening period ended with some dreary wrestling and punching that was all about Matt Cooke but did not actually involve him in the slightest. Such is the silly side of hockey.
Earlier in the day, Cooke had tried to patch matters slightly, calling the incident "a complete freak accident. I've said it before, I'm sorry it happened and I'm glad he's close to recovery and coming back. He's going to help his team."
No one, of course, believed him – not while the forensic proof is still being assembled by experts from around the world.
Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson did not anticipate the same drive for vengeance this night in Ottawa. “We’ll see how the game goes and go from there,” he said, “but I don’t see anything out of the ordinary happening.
"We know what we have to do out there in terms of playing. We're going to focus on winning the game and then whatever happens, happens. I don't think it will be hard for us to have the focus where it should be."
They swore and swore again that they would not get distracted, but for long stretches seemed nothing but. The Senators took foolish penalties and could not do much on the power play, despite multiple chances.
“We were too slow,” said MacLean, who vowed to keep juggling his lines – “the bingo-ball machine” – in an effort to find that winning touch once again.
It was not until into the third period that an Ottawa power play finally clicked, with rookie defenceman Patrick Wiercioch blasting a shot from the point that beat Tomas Vokoun.
It was something, but not enough.
Then came the ultimate slap in the face: Matt Cooke winning a battle in the Ottawa corner and setting up Tyler Kennedy for a sloppy goal that could be blamed on every Senator on the ice.
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