In the spring of 2007, en route to an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Ottawa Senators dispatched the Pittsburgh Penguins in five-games in the Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals. Unbeknownst to the Senators at that time, the Penguins would place a curse on Ottawa that would last for the next decade. In the spring of 2008, the Penguins swept the Senators out of the first round. In 2008-09, the Senators would implode and miss the playoffs for the first time since 1996-97. I’ll spare you 2013 and 2017, and today just reminisce about one of those fleeting, promising memories from the Senators and Penguins decade-long rivalry.
During that lost season in 2008-09, Cory Clouston took over head coaching duties for Craig Hartsburg after 48-games, and led Ottawa to a winning record down the stretch. To generate more offence, the Senators signed free-agent and former rival Alex Kovalev (whom they would eventually trade in 2011 to—who else?—the Penguins). The Kovalev signing became all the more justifiable during training camp in 2009 when much-maligned winger Dany Heatley demanded a trade out of Ottawa. He got his wish, and the Senators had to settle on Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo as consolation prizes from the San Jose Sharks.
In 2009-10 the Senators performed admirably during the regular season on their quest to return to the playoffs after that abysmal season prior. They carried a winning record through October and November before a trip through the southwest in December sent the team reeling. They managed to claw their way back to .500 by new year’s and then in January, the Senators went off the rails again, this time losing five in a row. At this point in time, the Senators had lost the services of captain Daniel Alfredsson and his linemates, Jason Spezza and Michalek, to injury. Then they got healthy, and as Alfie, Spezza, and Michalek eventually returned, the Senators found themselves on an 11-game winning streak and back in the playoff picture. I would be remiss here if I failed to mention that Brian Elliott played like a Vezina Trophy-worthy goaltender during that stretch, racking up nine-wins including a shutout.
Back in the thick of it, Ottawa’s general manager, Bryan Murray acquired forward Matt Cullen from the Hurricanes with Ottawa’s second-round pick and defender Andy Sutton from the Islanders with the Sharks’ second-round pick (acquired in the Heatley trade). Ottawa cooled off down the stretch going just 8-9-2 through March and April to finish second in the division behind Buffalo and fifth overall in the Eastern conference. If Ottawa’s final place in the 2010 standings doesn’t seem all that remarkable then revisit their team goaltending that season. Even with that unbelievable January stretch under his belt, Elliott finished the season with a save percentage of 90.9 while Pascal Leclaire put up a save percentage of 88.7 across 31-starts. Big yikes.
Ottawa never managed to replace Heatley’s offence, and Mike Fisher led the team with 25-goals. Alfie and Spezza came the closest to a point-per-game pace, both falling short amid injury-plagued seasons. With mediocre offence, wretched goaltending, and a poor penalty-minute differential, Ottawa kept themselves competitive with strong defensive play and an automatic penalty-kill squad.
Just like they did in 2006 against the Lightning, and they would again in 2017, the Senators had a post-season match-up with the defending champions. The Penguins boasted a formidable offence, but also gave up a lot of goals that year. They had a season-long team save percentage of 90, like Ottawa, took a lot of penalties, and had to rely heavily on their penalty-killers. Ottawa would have to respect the Penguins’ firepower though, especially as the road team in the Eastern conference’s fourth- and fifth-seed match-up.
The series got off to a promising start for the Senators, as they upset the reigning champs in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s potent offence got on the board first, just three-minutes in, on the power-play and then Marc-Andre Fleury, as he is wont to do, just folded like a lawn chair. Ottawa scored the next three-goals, and while the Penguins got one back midway through the second period with another power-play marker, Ottawa regained the lead shortly thereafter. All told, Fleury gave up five-goals on just 26-shots in that game. In an effort to keep things entertaining, Elliott opted to allow four-goals on just 21-shots. Bigger yikes. Treat yourself to the highlights.
Remember that curse I mentioned back in the first paragraph? Well, it found the Senators, and while they won game-one, they lost Michalek to injury as he joined Kovalev and Filip Kuba on the injured reserve. Ottawa would need big performances from youngsters like Nick Foligno, Peter Regin, and Erik Karlsson to fill those voids on the roster. Alas, the Penguins got their revenge in game-two. Elliott rebounded big-time, making 29-saves on 31-shots against but the Senators managed just 20-shots all game, and Regin (now on the top line with Alfie and Spezza) got Ottawa’s lone goal a minute into the contest. While maybe Sens fans should remember this game for Elliott’s heroics, we mostly just retain the scrappy nature of game two and how the bad blood boiled over into one of the best post-game interviews in Senators history.
When the series shifted to Ottawa for game three, the Senators’ offensive woes continued as they scored just two-goals on 22-shots. As a team they played admirably, holding the Penguins to 24-shots in a game when they sent Pittsburgh to the power-play five times. Ottawa went two-for-four on their power-plays but couldn’t get anything going at even strength, and Elliott returned to form with a save percentage of 83.3. Things only got worse in game four as the Senators scored four and conceded seven in another very chippy game. This one had 56-minutes worth of penalties between the two teams and the Penguins walloped the Senators 42-30 in shots while neither Elliott or Leclaire had any answers and they gave up four- and three-goals, respectively. Humongous big yikes.
Now stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Senators, on the brink of elimination, trying to eke out one more playoff run for their veteran captain, need a miracle or the team will move to Albuquerque. I may have made up the Albuquerque part but the rest is true, I swear. We knew this team was a shadow of its former self circa 2005 but having won one game and keeping it close enough in another you had to believe that just maybe Ottawa’s goaltending could outlast Pittsburgh’s with hail-mary Leclaire now in the crease for the Senators.
The series’ feisty play continued as both teams exchanged power-play goals in the first period of game five. Rookie Karlsson assisted on Mike Fisher’s power-play marker to open the scoring and rookie Foligno assisted on an even strength goal for Jarkko Ruutu for a 2-0 Ottawa lead midway through the period that the Penguins would cut in half in the dying minutes of the frame. Things got quieter in period two as Pittsburgh took the lone penalty. Ottawa, however, couldn’t convert on the power-play and, again in the dying minutes, the Penguins scored, now tying the game at 2-2. Midway through the third period, the Penguins took the lead and Ottawa’s season hung in the balance. They had ten-minutes to tie the game up and send the series back to Ottawa. From one rookie to another, Karlsson got another assist as Regin blasted one past Fleury to tie the game up:
That bomb gave Regin the team-lead with three-goals and brought Karlsson within one of the team-lead for assists (he would finish the series tied with Cullen at five, trailing Spezza and Alfie who each had six). With game five now tied, the teams traded five more penalties but the goalies stood tall for the remainder. Through regulation time, the Penguins outshot Ottawa 42-23 and Leclaire had more than done his part. Ottawa would get the first chance on the power-play in overtime on a Brooks Orpik delay of game call but couldn’t convert. From there, the teams traded power-play opportunities and spent some four-on-four time while Ottawa took the shot advantage 17-13 through the first two periods of overtime. After five periods of play, Karlsson, Cullen, Alfie, and Phillips had all played over 38-minutes and the pace of the game had slowed dramatically. Every player on the ice had long since lost the energy for animosity and every pass looked laboured. For those of us who stayed awake, though, we still had the energy to jump off our couches.
Before getting to the goal, I want to take a moment here to contextualize. Matt Carkner had just about the longest road possible to get to game five. A local-enough kid from Winchester, Ontario, Carkner averaged just 14-points per season in the OHL. Somehow, possibly thanks to his size, the scouts in Montreal liked him enough to take him in the second round on the 1999 entry draft. He never played a game for the Canadiens. He played his last two years of OHL hockey in Peterborough and then spent eight seasons in the AHL, playing just one NHL game with the Sharks in the 2005-06 season and one with the Senators in 2008-09, before getting a full-time job in Ottawa, playing 81-games in 2009-10. In the ten years since Montreal drafted him, Matt Carkner had 192-PIM and 12-points through 83 NHL games. He didn’t have a point through the five games in the playoffs against Pittsburgh. And then, in triple overtime, on the brink of elimination, against the defending champions, he just went ahead and blasted one from the point:
It was just one of those unfathomably improbable sports moments that reminds you exactly why you watch sports in the first place. Statistically speaking, it never should have happened. But there it is. You saw the clip. Matt Fucking Carkner. I wish I could say this led to some even more improbable ending when the series returned to Ottawa, and it almost did. Through the first 30 minutes of game six, Ottawa built a three-goal lead and the Senators were outshooting the Penguins while taking just one minor penalty. Even after the Penguins got one back in the second period to make it 3-1, Ottawa had things under control. And then everyone remembered about the curse and Pittsburgh outshot Ottawa 18-4 in the third period and tied the game at 3-3. Leclaire played the game of his life making 39 saves but it wouldn’t be enough as the Penguins scored midway through the first overtime to send every fan in Ottawa home with that familiar empty feeling.
After that the magic was gone in Ottawa again. The team played poorly throughout 2010-11. The Senators held a firesale at the deadline. Murray dismissed Clouston after the team came nowhere near the post-season. Elliott got shipped out of town and Leclaire played the last few games of his career, riddled with injuries. Matt Carkner played just 79 more regular season NHL games with the Senators, collecting 10-points and 169-PIM before going back down to the AHL. Matt, however, before he left his hometown organization, in the almost stranger-than-fiction nature of sports narratives, got one last moment in the playoff spotlight. He wanted to go out with the other kind of bang. And so he did.