OTTAWA — Pasted on the door of the Ottawa Senators dressing room at Canadian Tire Centre is a big picture of the Stanley Cup. But without a victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final, hopes of winning it for the first time in franchise history will evaporate.
The Senators will be facing elimination on Tuesday evening, trailing 3-2 to a Pittsburgh Penguins squad that “slapped” them 7-0 on Sunday afternoon.
“We can’t be sitting in our mud puddle,” head coach Guy Boucher said after practice on Monday afternoon. ”We’ve got to get up and go.”
Boucher has typically kept his team off the ice on off-days during the post-season, but opted for a half-hour practice ahead of Game 6 to help his team “refresh” and “reload” after one of the worst losses in team playoff history. Players thought the practice, as well as an encouraging chat beforehand, helped wipe the slate clean.
The on-ice session didn’t include captain Erik Karlsson, Derick Brassard or Cody Ceci — all of whom exited the weekend debacle early with injury — but all are expected in the lineup for Game 6. Mark Borowiecki is also a possibility to draw back in for the first time since the opening round against Boston.
Reloading against an opponent vying for back-to-back Stanley Cups means reverting back to strengths of the club, Boucher said.
Ottawa squeezed the life out of Pittsburgh’s attack in true Senators fashion during the opening three games of the best-of-seven series, but failed in dropping Games 4 and 5.
In the latter in Pittsburgh on Sunday, the head coach thought his group got over-excited and tried to trade goals with a lethal offence, and by the end of the first period the Penguins had built a 4-0 lead. Boucher didn’t think it was wise to try to play like a team that scored more goals than any other NHL squad during the regular season.
Following the 7-0 loss, he said that everyone “on the planet” knew the defending champs were the better team and his group, as a result, required its “very, very best.”
“If we stay away from our strengths there’s no chance,” Boucher said on Monday. ”We’re aware of that. We got slapped — hard enough. The reality sets back in.”
If there was one lesson from the latest defeat, veteran Marc Methot believed it was staying firm on the gas as far as that tight defensive structure is concerned, “because any opportunity where there’s a lapse in judgment or a mistake on the ice there’s a good chance one of those top two lines will capitalize on you.”
The Pens suddenly have not just two, but three lines operating once more with Sidney Crosby returning to form (two goals, two assists in his last two games), Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel firing effectively in tandem and the just-united trio of Nick Bonino, Carter Rowney and Bryan Rust spurring three goals in Game 5.
Ottawa forward Zack Smith said the Senators were suddenly giving the Pens a lot more room to operate than is usual or desired.
Because they spent so much time defending, too — with Pittsburgh’s speed game finally getting going — the Sens didn’t get all that much cooking offensively. They mustered just 51 shots over two games against returning No. 1 Matt Murray and scored twice.
Central to their woes is a horrific power play, which has gone empty in 29 opportunities over the last 10 games. Ottawa last scored a power-play goal in Game 1 of a second round series against the New York Rangers.
They’re often struggling to even get set up in the offensive zone.
“If we had an answer we would’ve done it already,” Sens winger Mark Stone said.
Boucher had one possible answer. He believed the power play was trying to make plays that weren’t there. Better poise under pressure was required.
Not only haven’t the Sens scored with their power play, but they’ve allowed five in the series on 15 opportunities (67 per cent), including three against in Game 5.
Coming back to topple the Penguins means shutting those efforts down and reclaiming the staunch defensive approach which got the Ottawa far further than anyone could have expected. That includes a better performance from Craig Anderson, who’s posted an .857 save percentage in the last two losses (seven goals on 49 shots) after stopping 80 of the first 83 shots against in the opening three games.
Boucher didn’t think his team could stave off elimination for the first time in these playoffs by relying on emotion, but needed a return to the form that helped them skate by the Bruins and Rangers and into second spot in the Atlantic division during the regular season.
He recalled the message he delivered before the post-season got underway.
“It’s about the ability to reload as fast as you can,” Boucher said. ”And if you can’t do that then you’re in the wrong business because that’s what it’s about.”