They say hockey comes down to the one-on-one battles, but they don’t always have to take place in the corners – and the important ones take place with the gloves still on.
This opening series between the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators was notable from the start, given that, despite their proximity, there was no discernible rivalry prior to this first modern-day meeting in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
We are now three games in and the rivalry is in full bloom, as underlined by a rather silly brawl in the third period of Ottawa’s 6-1 victory on Sunday.
The dreary fisticuffs aside, there have been some legitimate one-on-one battles at each end of the ice and, just as intriguingly, one titanic struggle off the ice:
Bench Marks: Michel Therrien vs. Paul MacLean: The widespread presumption is that both are candidates for NHL coach of the year – Therrien for taking a team from dead last in the East to second place, MacLean for suturing together a credible lineup from a hospital ward: Craig Anderson, Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek all lost for vast gaps. Therrien, to his great credit, has a knack for raising his players to higher levels as the season progresses. MacLean likes to say, repeatedly, that he will give ice time to those playing best. But he also plays hunches, one being the insertion of tiny minor-leaguer Jean-Gabriel Pageau – a local kid born a month into the Senators’ inaugural 1992-1993 season – into the lineup. He thought the pesky little centre might help a team that treats faceoffs like free coupons for the opposing team. When Pageau finished the game with a hat trick, MacLean looked a genius.
The Goaltenders: Carey Price vs. Craig Anderson: Hard to believe that when the puck dropped on the shortened 2013 season Price was considered a shoe-in for the Canadian team at Sochi while Anderson wasn’t even a whisper for the U.S. Olympic team. By the time the puck dropped on Round 1, the inconsistent Price was thought to be a risk and Anderson at least in the American conversation as the goaltender with the best save percentage, .941, ever recorded in the modern NHL. Heading into Game 3, each had an excellent game and an iffy game. Price was far more tested than Anderson, but faded badly in the final period, along with his team. Therrien should have pulled him out of pity.
The Young Defence Stars: Erik Karlsson vs. P.K. Subban: Karlsson, last year’s Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s top defenceman, began the season as if a repeat were as sure a bet as you could find. Subban, on the other hand, didn’t even begin the season – holding out until he forced a new contract. Then Karlsson went down under the skate blade of Pittsburgh Penguins menace Matt Cooke and, slowly, Subban has risen to favourite status for this year’s Norris. Both played well in Game 1, slight advantage Subban. Subban was just as good Game 2, while Karlsson fumbled badly, perhaps having come back too soon. In Game 3 the Senators – fans as well as players – clearly targeted Subban, Ottawa forward Erik Condra felling Subban with a nasty crosscheck to the face in the first shift of the game. It simply made him play harder – but eventually, late in the game, his frustration boiled over and he was gone.
Power Plays: The Original Game Changer: Challenged all season long to score, the Senators came into Game 3 with an astonishing 0-per-cent success rate on the power play – repeat zero per cent – and desperate for a confidence builder. They got it early on when, with Montreal’s Josh Gorges off for hooking, Daniel Alfredsson got a second chance from the side of Price’s net and forced a puck in. Montreal, coming in with a 14.3-per-cent success rate, scored one as well, a very weak goal that likely benefited from Rene Bourque whiffing on his first shot and cuffing his second, a shot that required sweepers to carry it past Anderson and over the line. Neither team shone with the advantage.
Old Savvy: Veterans vs. Veterans One of the game’s hoariest clichés is “Your best players have to be your best players” and, when they aren’t, criticism invariably lands on the team veterans. Alfredsson, 40, scored the opening Ottawa goal and broke the power-play curse. Rarely credited Chris Phillips, who has always elevated his game come the playoffs, is again having a solid, physical presence on the Senators defence. Montreal veterans such as Max Pacioretty and captain Brian Gionta insisted on playing even though both have been hurting, and Pacioretty was a non-factor, as was key defenceman Andrei Markov, who looked tired and turned the wrong way on the first Pageau goal and could not recover.
In Game 3, it turned out to be all Ottawa Senators.
Game 4, Tuesday night in Ottawa, is now certain to be all rivalry.