Turns out, who started in goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins wouldn’t matter much.
With the chance to seize complete control, and move to within a win of a Stanley Cup Final appearance, the Ottawa Senators were lifeless and disjointed for prolonged stretches against a championship-caliber opponent, and were rather rightfully handed a deficit they couldn’t overcome.
Despite a late-game surge, the Senators fell short with another comeback bid in these playoffs, as the Penguins drew level in the Eastern Conference Final with a 3-2 win in Game 4.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan’s decision to take the crease from Marc-Andre Fleury dominated the discourse coming in, but this was hardly a rescue on the part of Matt Murray, who had his Stanley Cup Playoffs derailed in warmups prior to Game 1 of Pittsburgh’s first-round series versus the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Instead, the Penguins were discernibly better from the moment the puck dropped, and the Senators flat-footed for reasons they had difficulty describing in the locker room.
“It’s almost like panic mode, you almost freeze. You’re just caught off guard,” Senators netminder Craig Anderson said when describing the ebbs and flows and natural shifts in momentum in the series.
“The split-second hesitation makes you look really slow.”
The speed discrepancy would catch up to the Senators, but it was a slow-developing rush in transition that truly shifted the momentum in Pittsburgh’s direction.
On the backcheck, Chris Kunitz hurt Erik Karlsson with a slash, helping induce a weak attempt toward goal. Pittsburgh broke out in the opposite direction as Karlsson turned to bark at the referee, which, while not the best look for the captain, wasn’t the reason Pittsburgh scored the game’s opening goal.
Receiving a pass from Sidney Crosby, Olli Maatta burned Zack Smith, who had dropped back to cover for Karlsson, and then beat Anderson, who was caught cheating off the near post in anticipation for a pass.
Ottawa had a chance to erase the deficit on clean ice at the start of the second period when a power play was awarded under contentious circumstances. Bobby Ryan was mugged by Ian Cole after laying a vicious hit on Chad Ruhwedel (Sullivan later announced that Ruhwedel suffered a concussion), who left himself vulnerable when reaching for a loose puck he momentarily lost control of.
But it instead of equalizing, it all began to unravel.
One failed power play led to another, boos began emanating from the crowd, and the Senators were sapped of the momentum they had built up in the series.
Frustrations began to boil over, as Karlsson’s ire was now directed at Kyle Turris, who engaged the Ottawa captain in a heated exchange from opposite sides of the bench.
“I think everybody is frustrated. We haven’t capitalized on the power play, a couple of my passes were off and we weren’t connecting on plays that we needed to make to get our momentum going and to give ourselves an opportunity to capitalize,” Turris told PostMedia’s Bruce Garrioch.
“We gotta start with that and it will eventually come. First we have to execute.”
Later, Jean-Gabriel Pageau was called for an unlawful removal of Sidney Crosby from Craig Anderson’s paint after a whistle. On the man advantage, Crosby returned to his blue paint, even literally dropping a knee inside of it at the back door, and whacked it through Anderson on his second attempt after a smart feed from Jake Guentzel.
Seconds after the Senators failed to convert for a 24th consecutive time on the power play, Brian Dumoulin’s wayward shot struck precisely off the blade of Phaneuf – whose focus was on his man travelling behind the net – and bounced in to make it 3-0.
Frustration, for at least a moment, turned to resignation.
A miraculous pass from Ryan to Clarke MacArthur late in a second cut the lead to two before the break. With that, and desperation set in, the Senators emerged from the locker room with intent in the early moments of the third period and sustained that push as Pittsburgh shifted into its own version of the prevent defense.
It held up until Tom Pyatt scored on a double deflection off a Karlsson point shot with five minutes remaining in the game.
The Senators pressed for the equalizer late in a frantic 6-on-4 finish led by their captain, but ultimately could not squeeze a third past Murray, instead seeing their outage on the man advantage stretch to an incredible 0-25.
“You’re obviously going to make a push at the end, and we had our opportunities, but when you leave it to chance like that, you can’t expect to get (the equalizer) every game,” MacArthur explained.
With the edge is essentially every facet, the Penguins earned the opportunity to take their first lead in the series as it shifts back to Pittsburgh for Game 5 on Sunday afternoon.
It almost seems improbable, given the way the Senators seized momentum in Game 3. But as Guy Boucher explained, the score reads true in the Eastern Conference Final.
“We deserved two games, and we got two games. They deserved two games, and it’s 2-2. That’s how it is.”
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