Whether it was a sign of progress or just a Christmas miracle, the Ottawa Senators came out strong against the Eastern Conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins and managed to come away with a ridiculous 5-0 victory. The Penguins may have been riddled by injury, but Ottawa's win was still an impressive one--and it gave the Sens a much-needed two points heading into the Christmas break.
The first started great for the Senators when someone who led the charge offensively last game stepped up in another way: Marc Methot managed to track Sidney Crosby and catch him with a patented Methot-style bee-sting hipcheck, which sent Crosby flying into Pascal Dupuis. Although both Crosby and Dupuis went to the dressing room, Crosby returned quickly--only to take another big hit later in the period when Eric Gryba crunched him into the boards. In between those two hits, the Senators accomplished a feat they've rarely managed this season: They took a lead, when Zack Smith won the draw to Cody Ceci and drove the net to pounce on the rebound and knock it past Marc-Andre Fleury. It was a very strong start for a team that really needed one.
As one might expect, the Penguins came on strong in the second, pushing the play and hemming the Senators into their own end for extended periods of time. Their persistence also forced Ottawa to take four minor penalties, and Pittsburgh outshot the Sens 12-5 in the middle frame. But thanks to Craig Anderson and some pretty solid penalty killing from the skaters, Ottawa held strong. The Sens' powerplay even made the most of their lone man advantage opportunity in the frame when Bobby Ryan tipped a point shot from Chris Phillips past Fleury.
If the Penguins had any advantage coming into the third, it was quickly doused when Erik Karlsson made a sweet deke to get around Olli Maatta and roofed a puck over Fleury's shoulder. Ottawa kept the pressure on, driving shot after shot on Fleury and didn't take their foot off the gas pedal. Kyle Turris and Cory Conacher added goals to Ottawa's total, and the Sens demonstrated the type of killer instinct they've lacked at times this season.
Against all odds, the playoffs remain a possibility for the Senators. They're just four points out of the last wild card playoff spot, and if they can find a way to maintain the level of play they displayed against the Penguins, they'll still be in good shape.
Sens Hero: Craig Anderson
Anderson's made some good saves in his last few points, but those were spoiled by some weak shots that got past him. Not tonight. Although he only had to face 27 shots, a lot of them were tough, and some big saves early on--especially on the penalty kill--gave Ottawa's skaters the opportunity to gain and build their lead. We can't say that Anderson's back, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.
Sens Heroes: Marc Methot and Eric Gryba
This game was a statement of sorts for Methot and Gryba, who were the team's top defensive pair for much of last season: They're back, and they're ready and willing to take on the tough matchups--few of which are tougher than playing against Crosby's line. Both of them have recently been scratched by the head coach, and they responded to that challenge in a big way tonight.
Sens Hero: Erik Karlsson
Three points tonight, including an absolute beauty goal that was the back-breaker for the Penguins. He led the team in ice time, including lots of time on special teams--both powerplay and the penalty kill. I'm running short of ways to describe how vital Karlsson is to the success of the Senators, but thankfully, anyone who watches the team can see it very quickly.
Sens Hero: Paul MacLean
Paul MacLean kept it simple tonight and was rewarded with a much-needed win. His line combinations were kept consistent and deployed in an appropriate proportion, and he used the right players in the right situations. Let's hope he continues doing the things that brought him success last season.
Honourable Mention: Cory Conacher
Although I think Conacher's looked good for the last few games, his effort paid off tonight when he drove to the net and tracked down a rebound to salt the game away. He also had three shots in just over 12 minutes of ice time and brought the high-tempo game that'll keep him in the lineup.
Sens Zero: Jason Spezza
I hate to do this to the new captain, but his mental game wasn't on tonight. Two completely bombed chances to get the puck out of the zone in the first period resulted in sustained pressure from the Penguins, and blown coverage of Joe Vitale (of all people) forced Spezza into taking a lazy tripping penalty in the defensive end. In the third, after he'd served another two minutes (for an admittedly accidental penalty), he failed another clearing attempt that gave Crosby a great scoring attempt late in the game. The captain's got to be better, and despite having an assist, can't really say he made up for the defensive shortcomings with offensive contributions: He had just one shot on net in the game.
Sens Zero: Discipline
It's ridiculous how many times this team takes penalties. Heading into the game, the Senators led the league in minor penalties taken (178) and times short-handed (82), and that rapsheet did not improve against the Penguins--especially in the second period, when Ottawa took four penalties and leaned very heavily on Craig Anderson to keep their lead in place. By the end of the game, they'd given Pittsburgh six opportunities with the man advantage; that's not something they can expect to get away with regularly.
They're coming... eventually...