“There are hockey gods out there,” an exhausted Cory Conacher said when it was finally over. “I guess they were on our side tonight.”
“Surreal,” added Kyle Turris, Conacher’s Ottawa Senators teammate and hero of the moment.
Neither comment quite covered the spectrum of the hockey story that was the Senators' 3-2 overtime victory over the Montreal Canadiens.
Bizarre, perhaps. Weird. Strange. Unbelievable.
But it took a great deal of time to develop.
Given the circus that had been the previous match in this opening playoff series between the Canadiens and Senators, it was a bit of a shock to see a hockey game more akin to public skating take over Scotiabank Place.
Right up until, unbelievably, the 19:37 mark of the third period.
It was then, following one fluke Ottawa goal off a skate, that the hometown Senators sent the 20,500 fans into a frenzy when Conacher – utterly unnoticed in the three previous playoff matches between the two Canadian teams – slapped a puck out of a goalmouth scramble to force overtime.
The bizarre night – fluke goals, late rally, a surprising goaltender change in overtime – was settled at the 2:32 mark of the first overtime when a seemingly harmless shot from the left boards by Turris found its way past a screened Peter Budaj, replacing an injured Carey Price, for a 3-2 Ottawa victory.
“I just kind of threw it at the net,” said Turris.
The Senators were outplayed, outsmarted, but out-lucked the Canadiens to take what is commonly called a “stranglehold” on the series.
Certainly, Montreal fans and players would find this game almost impossible to swallow.
“If we deserved to win,” said a philosophical Jeff Halpern, “we probably would have won."
The Senators came out in the opening period as if they were on the nearby Kanata Lakes golf course rather than the ice at Scotiabank Place. They were determined to play by the rules, polite in decorum and quiet when others were addressing the puck. They did not have a shot on goal until eight-and-one-half minutes into the match.
What could cause such tentativeness, shared to only a slightly lesser degree by the Montreal Canadiens? Perhaps it is because Game 4s can be far more pivotal than is generally credited.
Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson had said his team would have to “get the momentum early” if they hoped to go up three games to one and put a serious stranglehold on this best-of-seven opening round series. They failed to mount any momentum until it seemed all was lost.
The hockey cliché – mouthed this week by several players – is that “the fourth game is the hardest to win.” In truth, it’s often the easiest, especially when a team has three victories and seems on a roll.
In other words, the Senators had every reason to play this game with an urgency they could not find until young viewers had been sent to bed.
The Canadiens, on the other hand, were being understandably cautious, knowing that a victory for them here could even matters and put on hold and plans for weekend golf for either side.
“It will be…interesting,” Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean had said earlier in the day.
Interesting because of what was at stake for both sides; interesting because of what had happened Sunday in Game 3 of this series. The Canadiens, a team built on speed and skill, had played strangely out of personality as they sought revenge for any number of perceived wrongs: Ottawa defenceman Eric Gryba’s hit on Lars Eller in Game 1, Carey Price’s shaky goaltending compared to Ottawa’s stellar Craig Anderson, slipshod officiating, take your pick.
Whatever, the result had been 236 minutes in penalties and a 6-1 thrashing from the larger, stronger Ottawans.
The Montreal game plan for Tuesday was obvious. “We have to use our speed,” said young centre Alex Galchenyuk.
That, and they needed Norris Trophy finalist P.K Subban to show that new “maturity” head coach Michel Therrien talked about earlier in the day. No more flailing away on the much smaller Turris, as had been part of the Sunday humiliation.
The Canadiens would also need Price to return to the form he had shown in Game 2. He had, so far, been outplayed by Ottawa netminder Craig Anderson.
Anderson, unfortunately, does not score goals, something the Senators have been short on all year. Their power play, never sharp, was in shambles for Game 5, with passes off, shots off and players seemingly off. They simply had no attack until it seemed too late – and then they got lucky. Unbelievably lucky.
Early in the second period Subban found the puck on his stick courtesy of a Tomas Plekanec pass and sent a rocket over Anderson’s right shoulder into the top corner of the Ottawa net.
Barely a minute later, Galchenyuk ripped another shot past Anderson to make it 2-0.
It seemed that was how the game would end until the Senators caught a huge break late in the third when a puck skittered in off the skate of forward Mika Zibanejad and in past Price. The goal was allowed to stand after video review.
Even Zibanejad seemed somewhat surprised by the outcome. “I thought it could go either way,” he conceded. “But it was a good goal and I’ll take it any day.”
“To me,” added a delighted MacLean, “there was no question about it.”
And then, with Anderson pulled in the dying moments, little Conacher finally came through as an Ottawa Senator. Once considered a candidate for rookie of the year when he played for the Tampa Bay Lightning, he had been a major disappointment in an Ottawa uniform after being picked up near the trading deadline.
Whatever happened in that scramble, Price was unavailable for overtime, replaced by backup Peter Budaj. No information was forthcoming on what had happened to Price.
And then Turris threw that harmless-looking shot at the opposition net.
Harmless looking, but potentially lethal to any Montreal Canadiens hope of chasing their first Stanley Cup since 1993.