It's a question that's been muttered around the city since the Ottawa Senators' season ended on Saturday night: Why, in overtime, with a tired Pittsburgh Penguins' third line scrambling and tired after icing the puck, did Cory Clouston decided to ice his team's fourth line for the face off?
Looking back, it seems like an easy situation to address: If the Pens are on their heels, get your biggest skaters out there. Throw Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, and Peter Regin on the ice, and let them keep the Penguins third line (Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke, and Pascal Dupuis) scrambling, and maybe get a good scoring chance; hell, maybe even get the game winner. Instead, we saw Zack Smith, Jesse Winchester, and Shean Donovan jump the boards and get set up on the ice. And Dupuis scored the game-winner shortly thereafter. So why?
Well, the short answer: A cautious move by a coach who must have been expecting another marathon overtime period.
We all remember how long game five was; over 107 minutes of game action. In that time, Ottawa's fourth liners barely saw any ice time in that game. With the prospect of another game going into extra time, Clouston probably wanted to make sure his bench was fresh. What better time than after an icing against tired opponents to get your fourth line into action? With the opponents reeling, it seems like the risk is little, while the reward of retaining your bigger players for a bigger blitz in a minute seems like a good one. But that seemingly little risk turned out to be more significant than it seemed.
You'd have to guess Clouston was expecting Winchester to win the faceoff--which he did--and then get a good down-low cycle going along with Donovan and Z. Smith, which they'd done well early in the game. Then, after those three had built up some momentum, bring the top line on to the ice with fresh legs, and then get a good chance thanks to the momentum.
It was a conservative decision, and would seem to indicate a greater concern for bench management than for taking an aggressive risk with, potentially, a big reward. Ultimately, Clouston had no idea it would end up as the decisive play in the game; he will shoulder some fault for putting the wrong players on the ice at the wrong time, but it's a valuable lesson for a still-young coach: When the chips are down, play your best hand. Worrying about your player's exhaustion is a bridge you can cross later.
One thing in his favour: Clouston has a contract for next season. The same cannot be said of Donovan or Winchester, so they may come out the worse for the mistake.