Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins handles the puck in front of Mike Condon #1 of the Ottawa Senators 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 Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
It seemed the stars could not have been aligned more perfectly.
It was goaltender Craig Anderson’s birthday.
It was an afternoon game in the Stanley Cup playoffs. This spring, Anderson’s Ottawa Senators had taken part in four afternoon matches and won them all – each one in overtime. May as well skip the regular time and go straight to OT.
If only the Senators could have done so.
In what will go down as their worst first period of the playoffs, if not the entire season, the Senators were down 4-0 after only 20 minutes – the Pittsburgh Penguins well on their way to a dominating 7-0 victory in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final.
“A crap game,” Ottawa forward Kyle Turris said.
“A flat-out spanking,” teammate Bobby Ryan added.
“It was humiliating to get beat like that,” defenceman Dion Phaneuf said.
Senators head coach Guy Boucher compared the surprising result to “a plumber” who wakes up not knowing if he’s going to have a good day or a bad day. This one was simply miserable as Boucher’s players leaked goals at virtually every turn.
The loss could prove pivotal, as the Penguins now hold a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven series. Game 6 will be Tuesday in Ottawa; if a Game 7 is required, it will be Thursday back in Pittsburgh.
For the first time this round, the Stanley Cup defending champions look like the team that went all the way last year.
“This was one of the more complete efforts, for sure,” Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan said.
The Penguins turned an early giveaway by Ottawa’s Mike Hoffman into an Olli Maatta goal on a long shot that eluded Anderson.
Shortly after, a Mark Stone slashing penalty put an end to an Ottawa power play and soon handed the Penguins a short run with the man advantage. Defenceman Trevor Daley took a shot toward Anderson that Sidney Crosby deftly tipped into the Ottawa net for Crosby’s seventh goal of the playoffs.
The Penguins went ahead 3-0 when, at the end of a remarkable 1:22, during which Pittsburgh completely controlled the puck in Ottawa’s end, a shot by Nick Bonino ticked off the leg of Bryan Rust and in behind Anderson for Rust’s sixth of the playoffs.
Boucher then decided to switch goalies, pulling Anderson and sending out backup goaltender Mike Condon.
After Condon had played less than 90 seconds, Boucher made another switch, sending out Anderson again while Condon went to the bench.
Whatever thinking was behind this move, it backfired almost immediately when Scott Wilson chipped a puck from the side of the net and the puck somehow bounced off both net and Anderson and into the back of the net for Wilson’s second playoff goal and a 4-0 Pittsburgh lead.
When the second period began, it was again Condon in the Ottawa net and Anderson on the bench.
Perhaps it was just the coach playing a bit of musical chairs to celebrate Anderson’s 36th birthday.
“We hung him out to dry,” Ryan said of the team’s No. 1 goaltender.
Anderson did not seem much amused. “Coach tells you to come out or go in,” he said. “You do as you’re told.”
Boucher said it was always his intention to put Anderson back, as he was switching the goalies in order to “stall” the Penguins’ momentum without taking a time out.
It didn’t work, as Pittsburgh’s Matt Cullen opened the second period by cruising unchallenged across the front of Condon’s net and cuffed a pass in for his second goal of the playoffs.
Early in the third, the Penguins power play struck again when Crosby sent a neat between-the-legs pass to Phil Kessel, all alone to the side of the Ottawa net and Kessel simply swept it into the open side for his seventh playoff goal.
Daley closed out the scoring with a blast from the point.
Curiously, before the match, Boucher had talked openly about his team’s remarkable success in afternoon games.
“I just think we come to the rink and play,” he said. “Not much to think about.”
Well, much to think about after this mess.
Three Ottawa players – defencemen Erik Karlsson and Cody Ceci, as well as forward Derick Brassard – did not finish the game, but Boucher said it was simply to rest them. Karlsson tangled along the boards with Wilson late in the second period and appeared to hurt his left foot. Previously, he had played through two hairline fractures in that same foot.
Boucher was certain his team would bounce back as it has in previous rounds of the playoffs.
“Rebound,” he said, “and get ready for the next one.”
One possible change could be the addition of tough defenceman Mark Borowiecki, who has been recovering from a leg injury and is close to returning.
“He’s the No. 1 hitter in the league,” Boucher said. “He’s a heat-seeking missile, that’s what he is. It usually puts the opponents on their heels.”
Boucher’s Senators could hardly be further back on their own heels as they headed back to Ottawa.
They may, however, need more than a “heat-seeking missile” the way the Stanley Cup defending champions are now playing.