What a golden opportunity the Ottawa Senators have tonight.
With a win, the franchise could move on to the Eastern Conference Semi Finals for the second time in the last decade.
In their first season with the keys to the team, general manager Pierre Dorion and head coach Guy Boucher could rightfully call the year a success if all goes as planned at 7:30 p.m. It may be all about the Stanley Cup - although, a large portion of the fanbase have pondered if that truly was the end game with the playoffs-or-bust mentality over the past several years - but top eight in the league isn’t nothing.
Everything could very well still all come crashing down, one game at a time, but the Senators haven’t been this dominant all year long.
Against an opponent that many critics - if not all - deemed a considerate threat to hoist hockey’s greatest trophy in early June, the Senators have looked like anything but an underdog.
The Boston Bruins, possession kings during the regular season, have seemed a tad stifled by a combination of the Senators’ healthy forward corps, a solid neutral zone strategy and, of course, Erik Karlsson. The Senators currently boast a 50.6% Corsi For advantage, a 53.7% lead in the Shots For category and have held the Bruins to a league worst 24 shots per game.
When you realize just how outstanding the boys from Beantown were in the analytics department this season, it’s a major understatement to say the Senators have handled their opponent properly.
There have been lapses here and there - most noteworthy are the second period in Game 2 and the second period in Game 3 - but for the most part, Ottawa have controlled the pace of play four games into this best-of-seven.
Yes, the ability to roll trios like Boucher has been conjuring up on the forward lines has played a large part in the Senators’ 3-1 series lead, but the way those combos constantly go out and overwhelm Boston’s blue line while playing systematically sound without the puck has to be credited somewhat to the coaching staff.
The media keep asking about the next game, about the opportunity to close the series out at home, about how, historically, the Bruins have never come back from down 3-1 and the Senators have never lost when up by the same margin. And Boucher’s response is the same every time.
“Our game is what we saw in [Game 4’s] third period,” Boucher explained during his game day press conference. “That’s where we were consistent, that’s where we looked good, so if we could start the first ten minutes like that, that’s our focus today. We want to have a good first ten minutes and the rest we are not even focusing on.”
The first ten minutes. And when that’s over, the next ten minutes. And then after that, it’s the next ten minutes.
That’s how you win a race to four games. Don’t look too far down the road, just focus on the ten metres in front of you. And then the next ten.
That philosophy seems to have been missing for a long time in the nation’s capital.
“A lot of things changed when [Boucher] came in,” said Senators forward Ryan Dzingel following the team’s brief morning skate. “That’s definitely one of the things that’s been good for our team. It helps us with our confidence whether we’re up one or down one coming into the locker room, we still feel we can win the game.”
When scoring first during the regular season, the Senators had the league’s second best winning percentage. Only the mighty Washington Capitals had better numbers.
That ability to keep leads and utilize a solid structure - minus the final month of crazy inconsistent play that had fans contemplate if even a playoff spot was wrapped up - has been taken to a completely different level against the Bruins.
At multiple points during the series, the Senators have held their opponent to zero shots over a substantial period of time while leading.
Ottawa came into the series against a Bruins squad that nearly everyone favoured to win and win with ease. But the Senators didn’t focus on that. They took it step by step, ten metres at a time, ten minutes at a time.
And now they’ve got a chance to take it in five.
“Honestly I don’t think we looked or really knew that we were the underdogs,” said Dzingel. “Just sticking with the guys in this locker room and worrying about the things that are in this locker room is all we’ve done all year and what we do now.”