Take a deep breath, Canada – it is now 23 years 350 days … and counting.
Though the Stanley Cup was dedicated to “the champion hockey team in the Dominion” back in 1892, it has not been raised by a Canadian team since June 9, 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens defeated Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings 4-1 to take the final series in only five games.
This year, right until the third period of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, it seemed the surprising Ottawa Senators were going to finish off their Cinderella tale with a win over the defending Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
But it was not to be. The Penguins prevailed 3-2 in double overtime in a tight, hard-fought match and are now off to meet the Nashville Predators in a best-of-seven series to determine this year’s winner of the Stanley Cup.
Victory came 5:09 into the second overtime when Sidney Crosby sent a short pass out to Chris Kunitz, who one-timed a hard shot over the shoulder of Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson.
It was a good goal in what had become a remarkable and tense Game 7.
It took until the final half of the third period for the game to heat up dramatically. With the score tied 1-1, the Penguins gained their first power play of the night – something the Senators had openly dreaded – when Ottawa defenceman Dion Phaneuf took out Pittsburgh forward Phil Kessel along the boards. The Senators claimed Kessel had dived, but to no avail. Phaneuf was sent off for interference.
With the man advantage, the Penguins controlled the puck in Ottawa’s end until Kessel was able to get it out to defenceman Justin Schultz, just back from injury, and Schultz’s long wrist shot found the back of the Ottawa net behind Anderson.
“When they start dipsy-doodling in our own end,” Ottawa forward Mark Stone said before the game, “that’s when they get their scoring chances.”
It seemed the game was over at this point, the crowd settling in to let the clock run out.
But then, with only 5:19 remaining in the third period, a point shot by Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson bounced onto the blade of little-used Ryan Dzingel and Dzingel quickly tapped the puck in behind goaltender Matt Murray to tie the game.
Game 7 in a Stanley Cup playoffs – what could be better?
Unfortunately for the Senators, it was the sixth time in the 25-year history of the franchise that the team came up short in a dramatic Game 7.
Ottawa’s game plan against the speedy, highly skilled Penguins, according to Ottawa forward Clarke MacArthur, had been to “bore them out of the building” with the Senators’ oft-criticized style of defensive play.
“We play to our strengths,” Phaneuf said Thursday. “If people think that’s boring….We know the style that’s brought us here. We’re going to come out and play the style we have to play.”
And so they did for two periods, smothering such great talents as Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kessel. They set up a fence of players that turned away most Pittsburgh efforts, and if the Penguins did penetrate the Ottawa zone and get a scoring chance, they had to face Anderson.
Both teams seemed nervous at the start, the play scrambled and the crowd little into it – just as the Senators had hoped.
On the Penguins best opportunity in the opening period, young forward Jake Guentzel had a marvellous chance right at the Ottawa crease but could not beat Anderson. It seemed that Anderson, who stopped 45 of 46 shots during Ottawa’s 2-1 victory in Game 6, was getting into the heads of the highly skilled Penguins.
The Senators were given the first power play of the night, courtesy of a slashing penalty to Scott Wilson, but they could not challenge Penguin goaltender Murray. Having broken their 0-29 power-play streak in Game 6, it seemed the curse had simply returned.
In a remarkable coincidence, back in Ottawa, the entertainment area known as “Sens Mile,” where fans gathered to watch the games in bars, suffered its own severe power shortage Thursday evening.
The Penguins finally opened the scoring at 9:35 of the second period when Kunitz and Conor Sheary came down the ice on a two-on-one. Sheary flipped a perfect saucer pass over the outstretched stick of Karlsson and Kunitz beat Anderson high on the short side.
Forty seconds later, Ottawa replied when Karlsson sent Stone in on the left side and Stone’s shot somehow beat Murray high on the glove side. It was not a good goal.
Ottawa head coach Guy Boucher had added veteran centre Chris Kelly to the lineup for this all-important game, knowing that the 36-year-old veteran would bring a calming influence to the younger players. Kelly has a history of victories in Game 7s and won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011.
Kelly had given what amounted to him as an inspirational speech to his teammates on the off-day.
“It was no Al Pacino Any Given Sunday” speech, Kelly said. What he told them was simple: “We’re human beings. … And it’s easy for us to dwell on the past and to look to the future. But the future doesn’t happen unless you stay in the moment.”
For the most part they did, holding the stars at bay and mounting their own periodic challenges. Early in the third period, there were several good Ottawa scoring opportunities around Murray but they could not finish.
Ottawa’s concern all along had been the cycling abilities of the Penguins should they get into the Ottawa zone with a little space in which to work.
Crosby has now reached the finals for the fourth time in his career. Twice, he has reached the final and raised the Stanley Cup. But there were ambitions beyond a third Cup for the 29-year-old captain.
No NHL team has been able reach the final in consecutive years since the Penguins and Detroit Red Wings managed it nearly a decade back. The Penguins hope to become the first repeat winner of the Cup in the parity years of the salary cap.
Crosby would then join his idol, mentor and owner, Mario Lemieux, as two of only three players (the third being Steve Yzerman of the Red Wings) to captain their teams to consecutive Cup victories since 1990.