By ROY MACGREGOR
Saturday, November 18, 2017
OTTAWA -- It had been 175 days, yet time had done little to erase the memories or even remove the sting.
As Ottawa Senators forward Ryan Dzingel put it: "There's still a little bit of a chip on our shoulder."
It was way back on May 25 - traditionally a time of great celebration in the thawing north - that the Pittsburgh Penguins put an end to any dreams of the first Canadian Stanley Cup in nearly a quarter of a century. It happened at the 5:09 mark of the second overtime in Game 7, the perfect driveway scenario, when Penguins captain Sidney Crosby sent a pass to Chris Kunitz, who then sent a fluttering puck over the shoulder of goaltender Craig Anderson and into the Ottawa net for a 3-2 victory.
It could so easily have gone the other way. And considering the Penguins went on to claim their second successive Stanley Cup with a relatively easy six-game triumph over the Nashville Predators, there were those who believed the Cup might have been Ottawa's but for a single bounce.
There has never been any love lost between the Senators and Penguins.
There is past history in the playoffs.
The bad blood goes back to and well beyond Feb. 13, 2013, when former Penguins forward Matt Cooke stomped on the heel of Ottawa's best player Erik Karlsson, severing Karlsson's Achilles tendon.
When Ottawa general manager Pierre Dorion pronounced that Thursday's match at the Canadian Tire Centre would be his team's "toughest game of the year," it seemed a most peculiar thing to say only 17 games into the season.
Yet he did have a point, to a degree. If the Ottawa Senators are ever to win a Stanley Cup rather than just come close, they must get over teams that come into town with swaggering names and reputations. As Dzingel put it: "They're the team we want to beat."
The question was: Are the Pittsburgh Penguins of today the Pittsburgh Penguins of 175 days back.
Before defeating the Buffalo Sabres 5-4 on Tuesday and then the Senators 3-1 on Thursday, the Penguins had lost six of their previous eight games. They have allowed more goals (73) than any team in their conference. Crosby, who scored a goal against the Sabres, finally stopped his 11-game scoring drought, during which he had gone a dismal minus-9 in even-strength play. He picked up an assist on Thursday when Pittsburgh's Conor Sheary scored on the empty Ottawa net, the Senators desperately trying to tie the game to force overtime.
Twenty-one games into the season, the game's best player, having turned 30 during the summer, has only six goals. A year ago, he had 15 goals in his first 17 games, finishing the year with the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL's top goal scorer, with 44.
Of course, Crosby's demise has been greatly exaggerated before. He began the 2015-16 season with only two goals in the opening 18 games, then went on to finish third in league scoring and lead the Penguins to the first of two straight Stanley Cups. One writes No. 87 off with trepidation.
"We really like where Sid's game is trending," Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan told reporters on Thursday. "He's controlling the controllables when he plays ... you can't always control when the puck goes in the net.
"He's too good a player not to turn in his favour."
It likely will, but it has not been a great year so far for the defending champions. They have been blown out of games (10-1 by Chicago Blackhawks, 7-1 by Tampa Bay Lightning, 7-1 by the Winnipeg Jets) but they have also played 14 games on the road. They will play 12 of their next 19 at home, where they have excelled, winning six of their past seven.
And what, then, of the Senators, who went much farther than most expected last year?
They just squeaked into the playoffs. They called themselves "underdogs" as they met and defeated the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers. Their own coach told them they "had no chance" against the Penguins, and yet, came within that one lucky shot of defeating the Penguins and reaching the Stanley Cup final.
Ottawa returned earlier in the week from Stockholm, Sweden, where it had claimed two 4-3 victories over the Colorado Avalanche. A five-day layoff and jet lag partly could be blamed for a sluggish second period against the Penguins, where two tipped point shots were the difference in the game.
Even so, only 17 games into the season, the Senators already have 21 points. If they were better at overtimes and shootouts, they would be in even better shape.
They also have a strengthened lineup, with Matt Duchene, an elite 26-year-old centre, having arrived in a complicated trade that saw centre Kyle Turris end up in Nashville and two highly promising Nashville prospects go to the rebuilding Avalanche.
This match was Duchene's first in front of his new fans. The two games in Sweden against the team he had just left was, as new teammate Mark Stone put it, "awkward" for him. Duchene had looked out of place and out of sorts in the first game and had not scored a point in either game.
Playing in Ottawa against the Penguins, Duchene said, wasn't "going to be weird," as Stockholm had been.
Thursday in Ottawa, Duchene looked just fine. A slick passer who sees the ice well, he centred a line with Bobby Ryan and Dzingel on the wings. "I'd love it to work," Ottawa head coach Guy Boucher said as he set his lineup. "We have no clue if they fit."
There is no doubt Duchene will fit somewhere, with someone. Four times in the first period alone Duchene came close to scoring, only to be denied by Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray, who was splendid.
The Ottawa fans warmly cheered every shift he took.
"When they have a player like Duchene," Sullivan said of his opponents, "it makes the team that much better."
But still not as good as they need to be if they hope to see a Stanley Cup final within reach again next spring.
Sidney Crosby tries to tip the puck past Craig Anderson on Thursday. He later assisted on an empty-net goal for the win.
FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS