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Senators need to keep an open mind about switching up their system

Perhaps they should have gone for a walk before they flew.

The Ottawa Senators woke up Tuesday morning – no, that wasn't a bad dream, it was a 1-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins – and spent part of a sunny morning trying to explain what had gone wrong, what had gone right and what to do about Wednesday evening back in Ottawa, where Game 3 of this now best-of-five Eastern Conference final will be played.

They might better have taken a short stroll down the street to Point State Park, where once Fort Pitt stood at the convergence of the Alleghany, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.

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There they could have had an abject lesson in what happens to those who fail to adjust, who are too stubborn to accept that there might be other tactics more suitable to the situation.

They would have learned the story of General Edward Braddock, a British soldier trained in European warfare who, at the outbreak of the hostilities that would lead to the Seven Years' War, proved too stubborn to listen to good advice. Such as you're only inviting ambush if you insist on marching your men in formation straight up a narrow passage.

In 1755, the general was assigned to lead an expedition that would deal with the irritating French, who were then moving operations into the rich trading areas of the Ohio River.

The French had learned from the Natives as well as from their own experience that you fight differently around here. No open fields, but dense bush and rolling hills.

Braddock, who would not hear of changing tactics, let his troops get caught in a crossfire. He was wounded, dragged from the battle and died.

His famous last words were: "Who would have thought?"

Well, who indeed would have thought that the Ottawa Senators would reach the third round of the playoffs – up against no less than the defending champions with the series tied at one game apiece?

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And who could have imagined such success possible with an intense, defence-first system that involves neutral-zone trapping, mild-to-no forechecking and a team mantra that if you have an equal choice to make between attack and be safe, you better go safe.

"No one thought we would be here," Ottawa head coach Guy Boucher said on Tuesday morning.

True enough, but they are here and there is much to commend about the way in which the players have bought into Boucher's system. At least so far as results are concerned.

No one pretends it is firewagon hockey. One fan even showed up Monday at PPG Paints Arena with a sign saying "Golf is more exciting than 1-3-1" – the reference being to Boucher's preference for having one defenceman well back, three skaters defending the middle zone and one forward at least feigning a forecheck.

Boucher positively bristles at the mere use of "1-3-1" or any mention of the "neutral-zone trap," but the fact is his team is passive on the attack, hoping for the opponent to err so that the Senators, with a quick transition, can then threaten themselves. It has worked, obviously.

Boucher says his team played terrifically for five of the six periods during the first two games in Pittsburgh and only had the one disappointing period, the third on Monday night when Penguins forward Phil Kessel got a second chance after a blocked shot and scored at the 13:05 mark.

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Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson said Tuesday that "I had it" – only to have the edge of his left skate catch and prevent him from making the save.

No matter. What was interesting after that goal was how well the Senators pushed back in the final few minutes. They came up short, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

When the players spoke on Tuesday, it seemed almost as if they were a bit wistful about lost opportunities and a system that may, in fact, have failed them this time.

"We didn't generate a lot of offence," forward Tom Pyatt said. "We spent a little too much time in our zone."

Pyatt had noticed in the time leading up to Kessel's goal that, in fact, his team was generating no offence whatsoever. The shot clock seemed "stuck at 16 shots" forever. Not quite forever, but all of the third and beyond Kessel's goal.

This passive play not only drives many fans batty, it has gotten to the team it is intended to bother, the quick-striking Penguins.

"It's tough," Pittsburgh forward Evgeni Malkin said Tuesday. "You play two games and you score, like, two goals. You want to score more. … We're a little bit like, lose mind."

Malkin's English may need work, but "lose mind" seems exactly right in this circumstance.

Mike Hoffman, one of Ottawa's main scoring threats, stated the obvious: "The more you can play in the offensive zone, the better."

Even more obvious was a comment by Anderson, who has been brilliant in goal: "You certainly need to score to win the game."

Anderson, however, remains optimistic. "We'll have to look at the tapes and video and make some adjustments," he said.

Adjustments – the very thing General Braddock would not consider.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are badly banged up. Sidney Crosby has not seemed quite the force on the ice since he missed an earlier game with a concussion. Key forward Patric Hornqvist, a menace in the crease area, is hurt. The team's top offensive defenceman, Kris Letang, is lost for the year. Defenceman Trevor Daley is hurt. And Monday night, hard checks sent forward Bryan Rust and defenceman Justin Schultz to the dressing room, though both are coming to Ottawa.

Asked if perhaps it might be wise to unleash the dogs and mount a push more in line with the final few minutes of Monday's game rather than continue to play safe at all times, Boucher looked surprised at the thought. Keep it "steady," he said.

"I want to push," Boucher said, "but the Stanley Cup champion is on the other side there. We're not going to stomp all over them. And if we make it an offensive contest, well, we might as well give it to them right there."

He could well be right. He could equally well be wrong.

But it would be nice to see a little more risk taking – especially after "safe" didn't quite work out.

As someone once said, "Who would have thought?"

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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