Tonight's game was a wild, controversial affair that could have gone either way; it was precisely the type of game that the Senators have found a way to win, somehow, some way, over the course of this incredible run. The thing about these 50-50 games is that if you play enough of them, you're eventually going to lose one. What will hurt the most about tonight's outcome, if the Habs go on to win this series, is how much of a missed opportunity this truly was. Without the services of Max Pacioretty for the whole game, and P.K Subban for most of the game, this was the game to win in Montreal. When the tempers cool and reason prevails, that will be the take-away from this first contest of the series: a missed opportunity.
In terms of the game itself, the first period was an uneven affair in which the Sens took the lead on an Andrei Markov own goal 12:25 into the period. Officially, Milan Michalek would get credit for the goal but he never even touched the puck inside the Montreal blueline. As P.K Subban attempted to fight Zibanejad off behind the net on the forecheck, the puck came loose in front to Markov who accidentally put it in his own net. It was a weird goal, and it was a weird period. Montreal's best pressure came from its fourth line, their best chance was a Torrey Mitchell shot from the slot, and Ottawa's best line was the Pageau line. Neither team's skill players seemed to be able to get into a ryhthm.
If the first period was a stunted, uneven affair, then the second period was when all hell broke loose. The first half of the period saw Ottawa look like the better team, but they were unable to expand their lead. Almost eight minutes into the second, Montreal's fourth line would again set up shop in the Sens end, establish a strong cycle and Brian Flynn would beat Andrew Hammond on a wrap-around. Before the goal could even be announced, the Habs would strike again. Erik Karlsson had the puck bounce over his stick at the Montreal blue-line, and Thomas Plekanec was off to the races. He beat Hammond five-hole on another goal the Hamburglar would probably want back.
Up until this point, there had been nothing unusual about the game itself. Though it will be completely overshadowed by what came next, Lars Eller's attempt at a butt-end to the face of Mika Zibanejad was a dirty play that sent the Habs to the penalty kill. With Eller in the box, P.K Subban went and did the thing for which this game will be most remembered:
For his troubles, Subban was given a five minute major and a game misconduct. Whether you feel this was an egregious act, or simply a run of the mill slash, will depend somewhat on your allegiances. What isn't up for debate, however, is whether the five minute penalty was deserved:
Rule 61 Slashing: when an injury occurs, a major penalty MUST be assessed. Game Misconduct automatic!— Kerry Fraser (@kfraserthecall) April 16, 2015
Subban got the penalty he deserved on this play; whether he'll get further suspension is up for debate. With Mark Stone in the locker room nursing some sort of arm injury, Kyle Turris would even the game at 2 off a rebound in front of Carey Price. Less than two minutes later, with Montreal still killing off the Subban penalty, Lars Eller would take advantage of a Cody Ceci blunder at the blueline to break in alone on Hammond and once again give Montreal the lead. The play was symptomatic of Ceci's night; the youngster struggled badly in his first play-off game.
Shockingly, there was more to fit into the period. With the Subban penalty still in effect, Mika Zibanejad would tie the game again off of a rebound from a Patrick Wiercioch shot. But should you be worried that 5 goals in a period simply wasn't enough, the Habs would find the 6th from Torrey Mitchell to grab a 4-3 lead heading into the third. The final damage: six goals, a game misconduct, and a serious injury in less than ten minutes. This was less a hockey game than it was a sideshow.
In effect, that ten minute stretch was the game. Ottawa had a few chances to equalize in the third, notably Erik Condra with a gaping net, but would have nothing to show for it. If you're a glass half empty kind of person, losing a game like this doesn't bode well for the rest of this series. Montreal was at its most vulnerable and the Sens couldn't capitalize. If you're a glass half full type of person, it's but one game in what still figures to be a long, hard-fought series. Friday's a new day, strap yourselves in.
A final note:
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Dave Cameron's post-game comments:
Dave Cameron: "I think it's an easy solution: You either suspend him or one of their best players gets slashed and just give us five."— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) April 16, 2015
There's not much ambiguity here: this was a foolish thing for Cameron to say. If he's actually threatening retaliation against the Habs, that's both a) not a good way to try to go about winning a play-off series and b) exactly the type of goon behaviour one expects the Sens to avoid. If he's not threatening retaliation, at the very least he's brought down some extra attention on his own players from the referees. You can bet the NHL will want no part in any kind of perceived vigilante justice.
There will be calls from some corners for Cameron to insert Chris Neil, or heaven forbid Jared Cowen, into the line-up to bring some toughness. I sincerely hope Cameron resists those calls. Ottawa is the better team, and the foundation of their team is built on skill and speed. Beyond any moral high ground, simply playing their best players will be the best way to win.
Sens Heroes: Pageau line
We've said it a lot over the course of the streak, but the Pageau line was once again Ottawa's best, most consistent trio. They didn't contribute to the scoring, and Erik Condra truly missed a few golden opportunities, but they generated pressure throughout the game.
Sens Dishonourable Mention: Cody Ceci
Ceci had a part in both Montreal's third and fourth goals, and did not defend effectively all night. One of the keys to this series is whether Wiercioch and Ceci are able to shoulder part of the burden. Tonight, at least, they weren't and that was mainly on Ceci.
Sens Zero: Andrew Hammond
Hammond is one of the biggest reasons the Sens are where they are today, but at least two of the goals he allowed were soft and he finished with a sub .900 save percentage. Not the Hamburglar's finest hour.
Sens Killer: Montreal's Fourth Line
The much-derided fourth line of Brandon Prust, Brian Flynn and Torrey Mitchell was perhaps Montreal's best all night. They established a strong cycle in the Ottawa zone on more than one occassion, and even got themselves two goals.