In a way, Sidney Crosby was only stating the obvious:
“There’s definitely some story lines there.”
There, of course, is the surprising arrival of the Ottawa Senators in Crosby’s town Monday afternoon, an unexpected guest for Tuesday night’s opening game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL’s Eastern Conference semi-finals.
And there sure are some story lines …
Bark of the underdog: How ironic that the most injury-prone team in recent hockey history might today be among the healthiest. The Senators were never a sure bet to make the playoffs when this shortened season began, only to lose top forward Jason Spezza to back surgery, Norris Trophy defenceman Erik Karlsson to a torn Achilles tendon, top goal scorer Milan Michalek to a bad knee, No. 1 goaltender Craig Anderson to a sprained ankle, etc., etc. Anderson came back to post the best save percentage, .941, in modern NHL history. Karlsson came back two months earlier than expected. Michalek is back, though struggling, and Spezza is at least back practising with the team.
Anti-social media: Even before the dates of the series were announced, Pittsburgh fans had so upset Senators owner Eugene Melnyk on social media that Sunday night he tweeted: “Tweets we get from #Pens fans are profanity. That’s classless – it’s just a game. You are embarrassing your city, teams & players.” When reporters tried to prod Pittsburgh captain Crosby into joining in, he wisely responded: “I try not to get caught up in the Twitter wars. Not going to start now.”
Matt Cooke, The Heel: On Feb. 13, the blade of Cooke’s left skate came down on Karlsson’s left heel and sliced 70-per-cent through the Achilles tendon, leading to surgery the following day and, it was believed, the end of the young superstar’s season. Ottawa fans thought the kick deliberate. Pittsburgh fans sided with Cooke, who maintained it was an accident. Melnyk was so infuriated by the loss of his best player that he announced, on Toronto radio, that he was launching a “forensic” investigation that would establish that Cooke had deliberately assaulted the young Swedish defenceman. But Ottawa players weren’t playing it up. “That incident,” centre Zack Smith said Monday before the team left for Pittsburgh, “it’s behind us.” Cooke wouldn’t talk about it either, apart from saying: “I’ve always approached the game thinking if teams are thinking about me or worrying about me, they’re not focusing on what they have to do.” The incident, just for the record, is far, far from forgotten.
Net worth: Craig Anderson has been the rock that held the Senators up most of the season, and when he was down, backups Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop (traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the deadline) kept the team in the race for a playoff position. Pittsburgh’s Marc-André Fleury – supposedly pencilled in as one of Canada’s goalies for the 2014 Olympics – has had an up-and-down season and seemed at times shell-shocked during the Penguins’ six-game Round 1 victory over the New York Islanders. Replacement Tomas Vokoun has been a dependable backup. It may well be Anderson vs. Vokoun, who are old friends. The two once shared netminding duties for the Florida Panthers. Keep in mind that the two teams met three times during the regular season and the closest Ottawa came to a win was a shootout loss.
Shutting down Sid: No matter the opponent, Crosby is always the centre of attention in any playoff series. This will be no different. The runaway scoring leader until a deflected puck broke his jaw, Crosby is back and once again proving dominant. The low-scoring Senators are going to have to shut him down as much as possible. That means sticking to head coach Paul MacLean’s instructions to avoid dumb penalties and steer clear of the Penguins’ potent power play. “If we go off the page,” Anderson says, “they’re going to burn us.” The Senators have defenceman Marc Methot, the team’s steadiest, and Methot has a history of handling Crosby, having drawn the assignment in the spring of 2005 when Methot’s London Knights defeated Crosby’s Rimouski Océanic in the Memorial Cup. Methot is a great admirer of Crosby, but he also says that while “people are expecting them to pound on us,” the Senators expect to win some games. If the “Pesky Senators” take the series against the No. 1 ranked team in the East, Methot continued, “I think the whole hockey world would be surprised.”
Spezza speculation: Back surgery requires a long recovery time. Spezza was back skating a couple of weeks ago – “public skating,” MacLean called it – and has now been practising with the team and taking some body contact. He looked very good Monday morning. Asked whether Spezza would be able to play in the series, Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray said: “It’s up to him and Paul [MacLean]. We’ll talk after a day or two to see what stage it’s in.”
Spezza did not accompany the team to Pittsburgh. But that’s only Game 1.
More story lines to come.