PITTSBURGH — The Ottawa Senators remarkable ride has finally come to an end.
Sidney Crosby set up Chris Kunitz for the double overtime winner and his second goal of the night as the Pittsburgh Penguins ended the Sens season 3-2 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.
Ottawa twice rallied in pursuit of a first Stanley Cup final appearance in 10 years, ultimately falling just short against the defending champs while dropping to 0-6 in Game 7s.
Erik Karlsson assisted on goals from Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel. Craig Anderson was terrific with 39 saves.
Justin Schultz also scored for the Penguins and Matt Murray came up with 27 stops. Pittsburgh’s pursuit of a second straight Cup begins Monday night against Nashville.
The loss ends a storybook ride for Ottawa few could have anticipated before the season. The Sens were hardly a sure thing to even make the playoffs, let alone win two rounds and take the defending Stanley Cup champions to seven games.
Ottawa defied odds all year by embracing the ways of first-year coach Guy Boucher. That meant a defence-first approach which often saw the Sens trying to win games 1-0 or 2-1. It was that thin margin for error which made the club such an unlikely candidate to go deep in the playoffs and come just shy of its first final in 10 years.
Their run was fuelled in large part by Karlsson. While slowing down in the conference final amid injuries, fatigue and a nightly duel with Crosby, the 26-year-old captain had a sensational regular season and was even better in series wins over Boston and New York.
He finished the playoffs with 18 points in 19 games and if he wasn’t briefly the best player on the planet, he was close.
Anderson was also brilliant at times, winning Game 6 almost by himself and then shining once more in Game 7. The 36-year-old has been a testament to resiliency all year, powering Ottawa when he wasn’t with his wife Nicholle as she battled cancer.
Though they may not feel like an up-and-coming Eastern powerhouse, the core of the Sens is relatively young: Karlsson turns 27 later this month, Stone is 25, Mike Hoffman and Kyle Turris are both 27, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau is only 24.
Also on the way are intriguing prospects like Colin White and Thomas Chabot.
In question is whether Ottawa can make another deep run playing Boucher’s way. Teams that keep the puck less than their opponent typically don’t fare well over the long haul and the head coach’s staunch defensive style might not be as enjoyable for players when those close games start going the other way.
Boucher took the Lightning to the Eastern Conference final in his first season there, missed the playoffs the next season and was fired the year after that.
Game 7 started much as Ottawa preferred it would.
Chances for either side were limited and space was at a premium. Shots favoured Pittsburgh 6-5 in the opening 20 minutes.
Both goalies were sharp when the occasional flurry arose.
Murray made a strong stop early on a Bobby Ryan rebound around the net and then denied Clarke MacArthur with lots of space from the left faceoff circle. Anderson shut down Carter Rowney when he broke down the right side and stopped Jake Guentzel on the doorstep following a point pass from Olli Maatta.
Boucher said the Sens had to play to their defensive strengths to beat a better team. “There’s no other way for us to win,” said Boucher on Wednesday.
Steam seemed to be building in the Pens favour in the second when Kunitz finally gave them the first lead at the midway point of the second, finishing a two-on-rush with Conor Sheary.
But the very next shift, Ottawa evened it up on Stone’s fifth of the playoffs. Karlsson made another special play on the goal, which came 20 seconds after the Kunitz marker. Rushing up the right side, Karlsson sucked in Maatta and then found just enough room to thread a pass to Stone, who beat Murray high-glove.
Anderson continued to shine in the third. He denied Bryan Rust on a break and then kicked away a terrific Jake Guentzel chance with the left pad.
He was finally beaten a second time with Dion Phaneuf in the box for interfering with former Maple Leaf teammate Phil Kessel. The Pens worked it around with their first power play of the game before Schultz finally beat Anderson through traffic for the sixth Pittsburgh power-play goal of the series.
Schultz, set up by Kessel, had only just returned for Game 7 after sitting out the previous four games with an upper body injury.
Much like earlier though, the Sens quickly tied it — this time before three minutes passed on Dzingel’s second of the post-season. The 25-year-old, a scratch at times previously in the playoffs, finished off a Karlsson blast that banged off the post.
Kessel had maybe the best chance of a thrilling first overtime, but his shot in the final minute bounced off the top of the net behind Anderson.