Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Ottawa Senators' Jason Spezza (19) celebrates his empty-net goal with Zenon Konopka during the third period of Game 5 of an NHL Stanley Cup first-round hockey playoff series against the New York Rangers, Saturday, April 21, 2012, at New York's Madison Square Garden. The Senators won 2-0 to lead the series 3-2. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun) (Bill Kostroun)
Ottawa Senators' Jason Spezza (19) celebrates his empty-net goal with Zenon Konopka during the third period of Game 5 of an NHL Stanley Cup first-round hockey playoff series against the New York Rangers, Saturday, April 21, 2012, at New York's Madison Square Garden. The Senators won 2-0 to lead the series 3-2. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun) (Bill Kostroun)

SEAN GORDON

Unlikely contributions have Sens poised for upset Add to ...

To put it diplomatically, his is a face that has encountered considerable adversity.

And Zenon Konopka's hands are better known as blunt objects than precision instruments, so how is it that the most-penalized man in the NHL over the past three seasons has become one of the Ottawa Senators' vital playoff contributors?

More related to this story

It's one thing for Konopka to be inserted into Game 2 of the first-round series against the Rangers as part of a misdirection play by Sens coach Paul MacLean – without warning, Konopka and hard-man defenceman Matt Carkner were dressed to provide more steel to the lineup (“I had no idea I was playing when I got to the rink,” Konopka later said.) The Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., native – yes, he dabbles in the wine business in his spare time – repaid his coach's faith by getting into a donnybrook with Rangers forward Brian Boyle, and by assisting on the winning goal in a game that got Ottawa into the series.

It's quite another matter, however, to see Konopka on the ice in the final minute of a crucial road game with Ottawa nursing a 1-0 lead against the regular-season conference champions and defending with more or less the same urgency a Rottweiler displays protecting a scrap yard.

But there he was, causing a turnover in neutral ice and feeding Jason Spezza for an empty-netter to seal the issue.

Thanks to Konopka and Spezza – and goaltender Craig Anderson, who was magnificent – Ottawa now has two chances to eliminate the top-seeded Rangers, the first of them on home ice Monday evening.

“Just doing what I can to help the team to win,” smiled Konopka, who sported an angry welt on his left temple, the latest feature on his well-worn baseball mitt of a mug.

And what's this? Konopka was one of the people rookie Mark Stone turned to in order to prepare for his first NHL game?

“I talked to Jason [Spezza]and Zenon before the game, they told me you really do have a little bit more time than you think, don't panic, just play your game,” said the 19-year-old Stone, who set up Spezza for the game-winning goal on just his second NHL shift.

That it was a sweet little pass through the skates of Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonaugh after he gathered a long diagonal pass from Filip Kuba made it all the sweeter.

Though MacLean was careful not to give the former Brandon Wheat Kings and Canadian World Junior standout too much ice time, he found himself on the ice with Spezza on several occasions (and with Konopka on others) and played in the late going.

“It was an unbelievable 24 hours, just coming to New York on the plane, travelling with the team, it's been a whirlwind for me,” said Stone, who was still playing junior a week ago in Manitoba and whose first experience with New York City was when he stepped off the team bus at the Sens' Times Square hotel (“Unbelievable,” he said).

The 31-year-old Konopka said he merely offered a few words of encouragement to the strapping right winger.

“I just told him to be himself and not to be afraid to have fun. I mean, what better place is there to be than MSG on a Saturday night?” he said.

It's slightly unfair to single out Konopka for praise, given the contributions from the other Sens muckers in this series.

Yes, Konopka won 10 of his 11 defensive-zone faceoffs (and four of five on the penalty kill) in addition to playing nearly 11 minutes.

Yes, he won both defensive zone faceoffs during a Rangers power play late in the third period.

But fellow grinder Jim O'Brien was just as successful, winning several crucial draws in a first period where the Rangers squandered three power-play opportunities.

Though Saturday's game belonged to Anderson, who turned away 41 shots, he was bolstered by some unyielding work from the Sens' bend-but-don't-break zone defensive play.

Indeed, MacLean made a point of mentioning the contributions of Konopka, O'Brien, defenceman Chris Phillips and winger Chris Neil, whose competitiveness he said has helped tip the series Ottawa's way.

And that's the real story of Ottawa's first-round performance – the Senators' role players have been able to draw the highly touted Rangers, who pride themselves on wearing opponents down physically, into a dogfight.

Spezza was open over the weekend about Ottawa's strategy: grind their opponents down.

And when they control the puck – the Senators won an astounding 72 per cent of the draws in their own end Saturday – it can negate whatever advantage the more pedigreed Rangers have.

While New York can rightly claim to have outplayed the Senators for much of the series, the fact is Ottawa can wrap it up on home ice Monday.

“The 2-2 game is a big game, it puts pressure on the other team and gives you two chances to close it out,” Spezza said after the game, “and now we’re heading home and hopefully we can give our best game and do it in front of our crowd.”

In the know

Top videos »