Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins takes a shot on Mike Condon #1 of the Ottawa Senators during the second period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 21, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
CHEEKTOWAGA, New York – The long road of the Stanley Cup playoffs takes you to some surprising places to ponder the deepest hockey questions.
Our van load of travel weary hockey writers spent late Sunday night and early Monday morning ruminating in Cheektowaga – a slapshot away from the Buffalo/Niagara International Airport, almost halfway between Pittsburgh and Ottawa.
Why and when does one team finally hit the wall? Why and when does the other team suddenly find the energy reserves to climb over that wall? And once you think you’ve figured it all out, the team you’ve written off might just surprise you yet again.
Let’s begin with this: There’s nothing positive the Senators can take out of losing by a converted touchdown in Game 5 at Pittsburgh Sunday.
It was the most lopsided playoff game you will ever see, a men versus boys outing, the confidence of the defending Stanley Cup champions on full display against a clearly rattled, nervous-looking bunch.
Accordingly, the Penguins spent Victoria Day Monday in royal fashion, poised to go back to the final with a Game 6 win in Ottawa Tuesday.
Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby (or should it be Crosby and Malkin?) have steadily raised their games as the series has progressed.
The injury-depleted, duct taped together defence has bent, but not broken against the Senators. They’ve also found some long lost offensive touch to support the stars.
Goaltender Matt Murray, when he has been infrequently tested in the past eight periods since replacing Marc-Andre Fleury, has confidently challenged Senators shooters and shown no holes.
“We’ve done a better job of playing on our toes and managing the puck,” Crosby told reporters Monday, when asked about how the Penguins have progressed during the series. “We’ve played a little bit faster. Before we were too passive, on our heels and making mistakes.”
The tide has turned. By extension, the Senators have spent a good portion of the past two games on their heels, making mistakes because they’re too slow.
So, it’s over, right? Is it a mere formality that the night will end with the Canadian Tire Centre crowd giving the Senators their due for pushing past Boston and the New York Rangers while watching the post-series handshakes?
But then you pull back and take a broader look at what has happened in blowouts earlier in the playoffs.
Two teams have previously lost games by six or more goals.
In Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal, Edmonton outclassed Anaheim 7-1. In Game 7, however, Anaheim rebounded to win the series. In the opening round, Edmonton lost Game 4 to San Jose 7-0, which tied the series 2-2. Then Edmonton rallied to win Games 5 and 6 to move on.
Only a few days ago, Nashville was seemingly running on empty, too, losing centres Ryan Johansen and Mike Fisher to injuries and losing to Anaheim. It was their first home loss of the post-season.
They were done like dinner. Until, that is, somebody named Pontus Aberg became the toast of Tennessee to give Nashville new life with a Game 5 victory in Anaheim, giving the Predators a 3-2 series lead.
Maybe it really is true that momentum doesn’t carry over from game to game.
Perhaps, in a twisted way, the Senators can take something from the Penguins story, too.
Pittsburgh was out of gas against Washington heading into Game 7 in the Eastern Conference semifinal, having lost consecutive games, including a crushing 5-2 defeat in Pittsburgh in Game 6. Somehow, though, they found new life to win 2-0 at Washington in Game 7, advancing to play the Senators.
“The result we didn’t want,” Senators winger Mark Stone said of Sunday’s dismal performance. “At the same time, I guess, we didn’t use up a whole lot of energy in a game like that. Sometimes, it’s easier to move on from those types of games. We know we got absolutely clobbered, so we know we have to have an effort (Tuesday) that is one of the best of the season to keep our season alive.”
The Senators couldn’t explain why they came out so flat in Pittsburgh Saturday. Crosby couldn’t explain why the Penguins came out so flat in Games 5 and 6 against Washington, but he credited his team for learning its lesson in time to stay afloat.
Senators coach Guy Boucher believes his squad got overly excited in Game 5, losing its identity by trying to go head to head with the Penguins, playing a run-and-gun skill game.
For the Senators to rebound, he says they must return to their roots as a defensively-sound team that can’t afford to open up the game. It’s all about winning the little battles, claiming the small margins at the critical moments.
That’s also pretty much how Penguins coach Mike Sullivan summed up what the game is all about.
“The essence of the game is rooted in emotion and passion and hunger and a will to win,” he said. “That’s what makes our game as great as it is. It’s critically important that we have that determination and play with the necessary conviction.”
Flip it around and the Senators chances of survival rest with will winning over skill.