The game plan was simple enough, if a bit short-sighted, and the Ottawa Senators executed it to perfection.
They had to survive the first 10 minutes, said the captain, said the best player, said the coach. The New York Rangers, the best team in the Eastern Conference playing in front of the loudest fans in the East, would surely come out flying and, as Jason Spezza, Ottawa’s top player put it, the Senators would need to “survive the storm.”
At the 10-minute mark, it was still 0-0.
At one second past the 12-minute mark, a new plan was required. And, by the end of a fairly effortless 4-2 victory for the Rangers, that new plan of action for Ottawa was still being sought, although don't ask Spezza if his club can take any positives from the game. "There's things we can learn from -- I wouldn't call it positives," he said afterwards.
The Ottawa strategy began to unravel 7:59 into the first game of this best-of-seven series when the Rangers’ feisty captain, Ryan Callahan, managed to corral a bouncing, skipping puck by the Senators net and, using defenceman Filip Kuba as a partial screen, swept the puck around Kuba and past Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson, who was too far out of position to prevent the easy goal.
It was certainly not the opening period the Senators envisioned. Like most NHL teams, they like to score that first goal – yes, for those who annoyingly ask in dressing-room scrums, the first goal is important.
The Senators also had cause to believe that they, as the final seed, No. 8, matched better than some suspected against the No. 1 team. Rangers coach John Tortorella had even shown disdain for the final rankings in the morning when he said, “You make it – and then I think you throw the seeds out.”
Recent years have shown that No. 8s have a history of biting back. No. 8 Edmonton defeated the Detroit Red Wings, winners of the Presidents’ Trophy as the top team in the 2006 regular season, as did the Anaheim Ducks when they beat the No. 1 San Jose Sharks in 2009, as did No. 8 Montreal when it took on No. 1 Washington in 2010. It can happen and it does happen.
The Senators had another reason to enter hostile territory with confidence of survival if not success. They had beaten the Rangers in three of their four regular-season matches, shutting New York out 3-0 the last time the two teams met on the relatively poor ice of Madison Square Garden.
To win against a top team, however, you have to play well, and the Senators were sloppy to start this first game of Round 1. Passes were continually to the wrong side of shooters, rushes were disorganized and the Rangers were far, far more physical than the Senators – the weirdest moment being when the behemoth 6-foot-7, 244-pound Brian Boyle decided to wail away on the head and back of 180-pound stringbean Erik Karlsson.
In the second period, the Senators mounted a sustained attack – particularly through captain Daniel Alfredsson’s line – but could not get a puck past New York’s brilliant Henrik Lundqvist.
“He’s going to make saves where we think we have open nets,” Spezza had predicted before the game. He was right – to a degree. Until the game was out of hand, Lundqvist was not much tested apart from that one long flurry partway through the second period.
Tortorella, sensing the shift in momentum, wisely called a time out, after which his team once again assumed the superior position. Ottawa’s young defenceman Jared Cowen failed to clear a puck along the boards, the puck was knocked down by New York’s top scorer, Marian Gaborik, and the Slovak was allowed to walk in, strangely uncontested, and flick the Rangers’ second goal past Anderson.
Before the period was out, Big Boyle made it 3-0 at the end of a Rangers’ power play when he wristed a shot over the blocker of Anderson - "Big plays at big times," was how Tortorella would later describe it.
Matters only worsened for the Senators early in the third period when forward Nick Foligno, skating back of his own net with the puck, had it stripped away by speedy Carl Hagelin, who fed a pass to Brad Richards – MVP of the 2004 playoffs when he was with the Tampa Bay Lightning – and the veteran scored easily on Anderson.
Alfredsson spoiled the shutout of his fellow Swede and friend Lundqvist when he deflected a Spezza shot behind of the New York goaltender after the game had sputtered into the third period. Erik Condra scored a second goal for Ottawa off a fine pass from Foligno to make it 4-2. It was a case, as the say, of the score not being indicative of the game. The Senators were not good value on this night.
“We believe we can win some games here, absolutely,” said Alfredsson.
Saturday night the Senators will have that chance.
And would be well advised to make the best of it.