Two visions collided high above the banks of the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela rivers Friday night.
One view was looking back; one view refused even to discuss the past, insisting on keeping to the present.
As for tomorrow, the Pittsburgh Penguins decisive 6-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators sends the Penguins on to meet the winner of the Boston Bruins – New York Rangers series in the Eastern Conference final, while the Senators go home, their feisty season finished.
“I see a good future for this team,” said Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson, who talked about the youth of the club, the injuries it overcame and the chances it had up against the elite team of the east.
“In the end, we were a little bit thin compared to them.”
With the fall of the last Canadian team standing, the Stanley Cup is now 20 years removed from the country that owns it.
The Senators hoped to go Back to the Future. Heading into Game 5 at Consol Energy Center and, faced with the distinct possibility of elimination by the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Senators gave their lines a dramatic shake.
Jason Spezza, out Jan. 27 for back surgery and only playing in his third game back, was reunited with Alfredsson and Milan Michalek, two wingers he has had great success with over the past few years.
“Hopefully we can find some old chemistry,” Spezza said following the team’s morning skate.
One year ago, though not always together, the three Ottawa forwards had stellar seasons: Spezza leading the team in scoring with 84 points, Michalek leading in goals with 35 and 60 points, with Alfredsson but one point back of Michalek.
This shrunken season, Spezza played in only five games, getting five points, Michalek had a dismal time with only four goals, Alfredsson was vintage at age 40 with 26 points. In the playoffs, Alfredsson had led with 10 points, Michalek had but two goals and Spezza had yet to find a single point coming into Friday’s critical match.
Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean, who had previously kept the threesome apart in the hopes of spreading out scoring – scoring that hasn’t happened, for the most part – told reporters that it was “a line that we could always go to” in a time of need. And great was the need.
MacLean’s counterpart, Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma, was asked to look back to the Sidney Crosby of old and compare to the Crosby of today – and he refused.
“I’m not really that interested in looking back and comparing,” Bylsma told a reporter. “I love that question because it means he’s at a high level.”
Bylsma would not, however, have anything to do with discussing whether “he’s back to where he was before and before and before…”
The Penguins captain came into Game 5 tied for the team scoring lead with, no surprise, Evgeni Malkin.
Spezza’s new line began the game but accomplished little. The reconfiguration also saw Ottawa’s other lines get a do-over and, in some cases, it failed.
Matt Cooke, the despised Ottawa enemy who has been one of the top player in this series, again hurt the Senators when he outraced Ottawa defenceman Jared Cowen to the puck, gave a quick pass across to Mark Eaton and Eaton fed Brenden Morrow for a tip-in.
Pittsburgh went on the power play in the second period with Pageau off for interference, and Crosby was able to get a puck out front that James Neal jammed past Anderson.
They went up 3-0 when defenceman Kris Letang was allowed to cruise into the slot from the left boards and fire a hard wrist shot the Anderson missed.
Spezza and Michalek finally connected late in the period when Spezza slipped a puck out from behind the net and Michalek sent a quick backhand past Tomas Vokoun, who otherwise played a splendid game.
“Obviously we’re not happy with the way it ended,” said Spezza. “Two blowout games like that. That’s not reflective of our season.”
“They’re probably the best team in the league,” added defenceman Erik Karlsson. “We tried and we tried, but you pay for every mistake.”
With only 30 seconds left in the period, Pageau coughed up the puck and Neal sent Malkin in alone to beat Anderson. The crowd of 18,656 – the 284 consecutive sellout – knew the series was over, as did the Senators.
Neal scored his second of the game late in the third period when Ottawa defenceman Sergei Gonchar misplayed a puck coming out from behind his own net and Neal simply flicked the puck high past a helpless Anderson.
“We held them off as long as we could,” said Anderson, “but at the end they day they were just too powerful.”
Ottawa’s Kyle Turris scored later to make it 5-2. It was a pretty goal, but led to no celebration. With cause: this was not going to be one of the Senators’ late-game comebacks. Neal soon completed his hat trick to finish out the scoring.
The convincing result proved 40-year-old Alfredsson prescient when the longtime Ottawa captain said after Wednesday’s decisive loss that the Senators were “probably not” capable of coming back from being in such a hole.
Alfredsson, who played his heart out in what might be the last game of his admirable career, took some heat from his honest assessment. But the fact of the matter all along was that the Senators were badly outclassed by the powerful Penguins.
Ottawa was lucky to make the playoffs, given the incredible raft of injuries suffered and fortunate to get past No. 2 seed Montreal Canadiens in five games.
It was unrealistic to think that, even by returning to past successes, they could bring down Crosby, Malkin and the No. 1 seeded Penguins.
“We’ve got a lot to be proud of,” said Anderson.
“It was a hard lesson to swallow, the last two games,” said MacLean, but he saw it as a “learning” process that will benefit his team in the long term.
For a rebuilding year, Paul MacLean’s Senators could not possibly have wished for more. “We got two years in one as far as development goes this year,” MacLean said.
And now, with the year done, he can shift his vision back to where it should be.