Taking on the league’s best possession team (in shots on goal) during the regular season and limiting them to a fraction of the offense they’re accustomed to in the playoffs is no small feat.
That’s exactly what the Ottawa Senators did to the Boston Bruins in Round 1 when they beat the boys from Beantown in six games.
The Bruins, owners of a 55.3% Shots For rating from October to early April, were absolutely stifled by an aggressive, stealthy forecheck, a neutral zone trap that worked like quicksand against an impressive forward corps, and a Senators blue line that hardly budged in their own end.
The possession giants ended up garnering a league-worst 24.5 shots per 60 minutes in their series with the Senators, and that’s music to the ears of many in the nation’s capital, but especially goaltender Craig Anderson.
Anderson, who boasted a career 93.3 save percentage in the postseason at the beginning of the series, was still brilliant for the most part during the best-of-seven, but he didn’t have to be perfect. Gaffs in Game 2 and Game 3 resulted in two wins, and in the end, his 92.1 save percentage, 0.1 better than his counterpart in Tuukka Rask, was all the team needed to wrap up the first round with time to spare.
Anderson was solid, but it’s fantastic news for him and the team that the vast majority of shots were directed at the other net.
If there’s another thing, among many, that Senators head coach Guy Boucher’s system should receive credit for, it’s the way irregulars in the lineup felt comfortable stepping in at a moment’s notice on the backend.
Ben Harpur and Freddy Claesson were asked to play a combined total of six games in the first round. When Mark Borowiecki went down to a leg injury in Game 2 and when Chris Wideman’s defensive play just wouldn’t cut it in Game 5, the Senators turned to their seventh and eighth defensemen to fill the void.
They were reliable replacements, to say the least.
“Having that depth on D that we have now is incredible because, first of all, it balances out the ice time a little bit more throughout your three pairings,” said Marc Methot yesterday morning during off-day media availability. “But more specifically about those two, they played great. They’re showing a lot of poise. I know it’s not easy playing as a defenseman when you’re coming into the league and playing that way, and I know with Harps and Freddy, they’ve managed to do that for the team and it’s been fantastic.”
In those six games, Harpur and Claesson combined for a plus-20 5v5 Corsi For rating, which proved to be an invaluable asset while the team’s second pairing of Cody Ceci and Dion Phaneuf was struggling to handle the Bruins’ best.
At times during the regular season, the Senators depended heavily on their structure to win tight games. Their system bailed them out more often than not, but it was going to take far more than X’s and O’s to win a playoff series.
Luckily for Ottawa, their stars showed up along with the previously discussed systematic play.
The most shocking success story by far was that of Bobby Ryan’s multiple dominating performances in the offensive zone. Sens fans haven’t seen the 30-year-old whip up and down the ice with such force and determination in over a year, and they’ve definitely never seen him play like that before in an Ottawa uniform.
Ryan’s total of seven points (4,3) in the first round was only second on the team to the man who has a flair for the dramatic and a knack for the largest stage.
Big Game Brass was showing fans why he has such a nickname, and reminding the organization that traded for him why they paid such a price.
“I remember when we picked him up I kept saying to everybody that he’s a playoff player,” Methot recalled. “He’s done a great job in his playoff time over the course of his career and for me, it’s no surprise.
“He’s so passionate about the game of hockey. He loves playing it, he could tell you every player’s curve in the league and how they wear their skates and their tape jobs. He’s just one of those guys that has great hockey IQ and it’s showing through in his play right now.”
With eight points (2,6) in six games, only Pittsburgh forward Evgeni Malkin has been more productive than Derick Brassard thus far. Brassard’s four power play points, tied with Ryan, are a huge reason the Senators have been clicking on the man advantage as of late.
And then there’s Erik Karlsson.
What can you say about Erik Karlsson that hasn’t been said a million times before?
“He’s doing what Erik Karlsson does and that’s taking over games at times,” Methot explained. “Being clutch for us, coming down with key moments in games where he’ll provide a nice pass or a timely goal and that’s just what he does. He’s a great leader and he’s extremely competitive and it’s showing through right now in his play and his determination.”
The Senators captain has been good in the playoffs before. He’s even been great. But he has never been as amazing as he was in Round 1.
Put plainly, Karlsson decided that his team was going to win the series.
And then we found out he had two hairline fractures in his foot. Because of course he did it all on a broken foot.
The 26-year-old’s six assists against the Bruins included three magnificent plays that no spectator will soon forget, regardless of the jersey you wear.
It truly was a series to remember, and for all the best reasons.
The Senators were picked by no one outside the city limits of Canada’s capital and then proved all critics wrong. They took down a team that, despite numerous injuries, was still favoured in every sense of the word.
Up next, an old friend. The New York Rangers aren’t exactly a menacing dragon the Senators are in dire need of slaying, but it never hurts to avenge a previous painful loss.