The Ottawa Senators are rattled. Not by the New York Rangers – but by themselves.
Heading into Game 7 of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Senators have played two dreadful games (1 and 6), three games in which their goaltending and lower lines saved the day (2, 3 and 4), and just one game in which everything came together at once (5).
The Rangers have played two very good games (1 and 6) and four games in which spectators have had to wonder how on earth a team with great goaltending but three third lines, an inexperienced defence and a sputtering scoring line ever got to be the top team in the Eastern Conference.
The levelling out of the unimaginative Rangers and the rise of the Ottawa worker bees has made for some splendid competition at times, but Game 6 was not one of those occasions. The Senators looked, and played, like a spent force: work ethic gone, top players benched, unnecessary penalties taken, bizarre emotional outbursts, goaltending unable to save the day.
The singular consolation to be had from such a display was that the final score was 3-2, suggesting the Rangers still haven't got their game back to what it was in the regular season.
Whatever happens Thursday night, Game 7 should break down into the five basic elements of playoff hockey.
Goaltending: On Wednesday, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was deservedly named a finalist for the Vézina Trophy this season – he is simply outstanding – but do not sell Ottawa counterpart Craig Anderson short. Anderson was the star of Ottawa's two wins at Madison Square Garden and has always played his best in the Big Apple though he says, "I'm not really sure why." The Senators' goaltender says the secret to success in this winner-take-all seventh game is simple: "We need to score more goals than them and I need to stop more pucks than them." Lundqvist has given the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs the funniest quote when he complained (justifiably) about the Senators' second goal in Game 6 and suggested, "Someone wants them back in the game, obviously, because there's no other explanation." That "someone" would have to be the NHL and its broadcasters – naturally preferring the Senators' recognition factor and Ottawa to the Rangers and New York City.
Special teams: Ottawa's top power-play line of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek stunk to the point of being benched in Game 6 and has not shone all playoffs. Alfredsson was hurt (concussion) and seemed rusty when he returned, Michalek has had next-to-no presence, Spezza has shone (Game 5) and sputtered (Game 6). New York has looked no better, with 41-goal scorer Marian Gaborik a no-show and their most-dangerous playoff scorer, Brian Boyle, out with a concussion. Brad Richards and Derek Stepan, however, seemed to find their poise in Game 6. Both teams have scored 12 goals in the six games for identical goals-against averages of 2.00. New York's power play is 5-for-29 (17.2 per cent) and Ottawa's 3-for-24 (12.5 per cent). Penalty kill success is 87.5 per cent for the Rangers, 82.8 per cent for the Senators. Special teams have not been the difference in this series.
Coaching: They could not be more different. New York head coach John Tortorella is intense and boorish, Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean relaxed and friendly. Neither gives much to the media. MacLean is creative: turning serial fighter Zenon Konopka into a valued playoff centre and tweaking (some say too much) his lineup regularly. Tortorella is rigid: the team's breakout system so bizarrely predictable it's a wonder the players don't fall down laughing as the obligatory drop pass lands on the trailing forward's stick. Tortorella, however, has convinced his charges to block every puck aimed at the New York end of the ice – and it is both effective and, to a reluctant shooter like Spezza, maddening.
Game 7s: The Ottawa Senators might have won their two games at MSG in the regular season and another two in the playoffs, but the Senators are 0-for-4 in Game 7s. The Rangers, on the other hand, have won three of the last four Game 7s they have played, one of them coming in 1994 when they came back in a series against the New Jersey Devils (remember Mark Messier's "guaranteed" win?) and went on to win its last Stanley Cup. However, past accomplishments – as the Pittsburgh Penguins, Vancouver Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks have just shown – mean nothing once the puck is dropped in a decisive game.
Heroes: Messier, now in Rangers management, is in the stands these days, not on the ice. There have been modest heroes so far – Boyle with his two game-winning goals before his injury, Anderson with his remarkable play in Ottawa's two New York victories, Spezza with both goals in Ottawa's 2-0 victory in Game 5 – but the greater story has been the non-heroics of such players as Gaborik (one goal, two assists) and Ottawa's fabulous playmaking defenceman Erik Karlsson (one goal). Someone, however, will assuredly shine Thursday night and be knighted, even if only temporarily, for his effort. The one certainty is he will have a number and his name on the back of his jersey. The unknowable, at the moment, is the colour of that jersey.