If hockey has a moment that defines, it is fast approaching.
By the end of the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the game is profoundly different, as are the players – at least those still standing.
Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena, it will be decided which of the Pittsburgh Penguins or Ottawa Senators will move on to meet the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup final.
In this spring of oddities, the eyebrows just keep bouncing. The Predators were the final NHL team, 16th out of 30, to qualify for the playoffs. The Ottawa Senators are 0-for-5 in playoff Game 7s, which should comfort the Penguins but for the fact that Pittsburgh has never won a Game 7 at home after dropping a Game 6, as it did 2-1 in Ottawa on Tuesday.
The Senators, at times, seem to have reinvented the game, winning by defending. As forward Clarke MacArthur joked Wednesday the game plan heading into Pittsburgh is “to bore them out of the building.”
The unexpected is to be expected once the playoff cauldron heats up. This is the time of year when reputations are made, reputations lost and, in certain cases, reputations salvaged.
Mark Messier will forever be regarded as the ultimate hockey leader for his “guaranteed” win in the 1994 playoffs – on his way to a sixth Stanley Cup.
Henri Richard stands forever as a playoff legend for having more Stanley Cup rings than he has fingers.
Alexander Ovechkin, perhaps the greatest pure scoring threat since Henri’s brother, the Rocket, stumbled again in these playoffs, despite leading his Washington Capitals to the league’s best regular-season record the past two years. Even if it is unfair to hold him to blame for all the Capitals’ falls, he may be forever tainted – oddly, for a pure scorer – with an inability to finish.
A fellow Russian, Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins, already has two Stanley Cup rings and has been, by far, the best skater in the Ottawa-Pittsburgh series. He not only leads the league in playoff scoring but also in breath-catching moves.
For a goaltender to reach special status, he has to carry his team to a Stanley Cup final. One this year has already showed he has that mettle and that is Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, who simply denied a superior team, the Anaheim Ducks, the chance to move on with his other-world performance in Game 6 of the Western Conference final.
Tuesday night in Ottawa, it was Craig Anderson’s turn in the spotlight, turning aside 45 of 46 Pittsburgh shots. Anderson, a superior goaltender, has never attained elite status as he has never before advanced to the third round, let alone a Stanley Cup final. If he does on Thursday, his reputation will soar.
“He’s been terrific at reloading mentally, physically, and emotionally,” Ottawa head coach Guy Boucher says. “It’s hell when you don’t have [that goaltender] because everything you do turns to darkness, and there’s nothing that really matters when you don’t have a real No. 1 goaltender.”
“Stay in the moment as best you can and focus on the baby steps,” Anderson says in the far simpler language he prefers. “One shot at a time, and the big picture takes care of itself when you worry about the details.”
Stanley Cup history is filled with surprising heroes. Simply go down the list of Conn Smythe Trophy winners as playoff MVPs and consider who predicted winners such as Justin Williams (2014), Cam Ward (2006), Claude Lemieux (1995), Butch Goring (1981) or Serge Savard (1969).
Inexplicable things can happen to individuals in the playoffs. Journeyman Chris Kontos scored nine goals in 11 games with the 1988-89 Los Angeles Kings after scoring just two goals in the regular season. For Ottawa, checking centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau is the team’s leading goal scorer with eight.
Ottawa has also witnessed the salvaging of two reputations: Bobby Ryan and Derick Brassard.
Ryan, who carries a seven-year $50.75-million (U.S.) contract, had a miserable regular season, counting only 25 points and seemingly listless and unengaged many nights. His 13 goals were a far cry from the four 30-goal seasons he once had with the Anaheim Ducks. The fan base turned on him.
In the playoffs he has been a force. He has six goals, three of them game winners, and nine assists for 15 points. He tied the game Tuesday with a blast that put an end to his team’s 0-for-29 streak on the power play. The fickle fan base now adores him.
But there is much more than that. A gentle soul off the ice, Ryan wanders the ice like a nuisance bear, bothering everyone with whom he comes in contact. When they were picking the U.S. Olympic team a few years ago, Brian Burke may have said of Ryan that “He can’t spell intensity” – but he has clearly been to night school.
As for Brassard, he came to the Senators in a trade that sent young centre Mika Zibanejad – a player with size, skill but an attention-span problem – to the New York Rangers. He arrived with a nickname “Big-Game Brass” that, over the course of the regular season, became a bit of a joke. At $5-million a year, he seemed to bring very little to the table – until the playoffs began. With four goals and 11 points, he has become a scoring threat, even if the best of his game is defence.
Defence works for the Senators, however, and it will have to work again if Ottawa has any hopes of moving on to the final.
“Their best players are frustrated by the way we play,” Brassard says with pride.
“What Clarke said, that’s pretty much the way we want to play.
“We just have to play our game and be confident.”Report Typo/Error