Monday, May 20, 2013

The Improbable Dream Season lives on

Ottawa Citizen
May 20, 2013

Scanlan: The Improbable Dream Season lives on

Daniel Alfredsson celebrates with the bench after scoring on Tomas Vokoun in the 3rd period as the Ottawa Senators take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in game 3 of the NHL Eastern Conference Semi-Finals at Scotiabank Place. (Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen)

Do Sens fans believe in miracles?
This year, they do. The Improbable Dream Season added another layer after the Senators unlikely 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 of their eastern semifinal.
Colin Greening scored the winner in double overtime.
A capacity audience was treated to the most dramatic spectacle of the season, a game that picked up tempo as it went deeper into the night. Shots after the first overtime were 45 to 42 for the Penguins, as goaltenders Craig Anderson and Tomas Vokoun traded spectacular saves, and watched glorious chances missed. Evgeni Malkin, alone, spun dangle upon dangle, but could not beat Anderson, nor could his linemates when he left them the puck and an open net.
Early in the second overtime the shot totals approached the century mark.
Without some earlier heroics, the overtime would not have happened.
With the Pens less than 30 seconds away from taking a 3-0 series lead, Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson went to work, which is to say he drove the net hard while winger Milan Michalek saw him and found him.
Before the game, Alfredsson had said: “we can take our game to a higher level.”
The time to get it done was the third period, with the home side trailing 1-0, and Alfredsson himself gave his team a chance, redirecting a perfect Milan Michalek pass to the roof of the net with time ticking down on the game, on the season.
“It doesn’t always work out, but we always believe we can do it,” Alfredsson said, in the dressing room afterward. “That’s a good feeling to have.
“With a minute and half to go we get a penalty and it doesn’t look good,” Alfredsson said but we know we have some skill, we made some good passes and found an opening and it gives us a chance to win.”
As to the 2-1 series situation, after a near fall into an 0-3 pit, Alfredsson said: “we’re right back in it.”
Series on.
With 28.6 seconds on the clock, Alfredsson’s shorthanded goal, with goaltender Anderson on the bench for an extra skater, tied the game and sent it to overtime. The Scotiabank Place crowd might have been disbelieving if they hadn’t seen the scene so many times this season, and as recently as Game 4 against the Montreal Canadiens.
Victory inevitable? Perhaps, even if the Penguins did dent a goalpost in overtime.
“When you get a goal like that,” Jason Spezza said of Alfredsson’s late goal, “you feel like good things are going to happen to you.”
As the two teams went to their respective rooms for the overtime intermission, Alfredsson’s song, Beautiful Day pounded from the arena speakers.
The Senators did their best to muck up the game with a ton of hits and tight checking, to mixed results. They ended up on the short end of the penalty calls, but their killing was so strong, the Senators ended up drawing inspiration from their shorthanded situations, ultimately scoring shorthanded.
The piece de resistance: a 59-second 5-on-3 kill during the second period.
“Power plays in the playoffs can be different,” said Spezza, playing his first game since Jan. 27. “Penalty killers do a great job blocking shots and getting in lanes. Sometimes you have to make the play that you see.”
Spezza was talking about means of firing up Ottawa’s power play, but what he said applied to Pittsburgh as well. The Penguins were a little casual with their 5-on-3 time, and only scored later on a broken play, at even strength.
The timing of the Penguins goal was significant, coming with one minute, seven seconds left in the second period. It ended some building Penguins frustration as well as a string of Craig Anderson saves on several of the previous 22 shots worthy of a highlight reel.
Tyler Kennedy, a Senators killer of some repute (11 goals in 20 regular season games), got the goal, firing a high shot over Anderson.
In a spooky coincidence, Spezza’s return to action from nearly four months on the injury list came on the 10-year anniversary of his first playoff appearance as an Ottawa Senator, May 19, 2003. Spezza was still a teenager then, the apple of HNIC analyst Don Cherry’s eye. Remember Cherry ripping on the Sens for not having Spezza in the playoff lineup against the New Jersey Devils?
Spezza, 19, watched 15 playoff games that spring from the sidelines before leaping into action in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final, scoring a goal and an assist in a 3-1 victory that kept the Senators alive before they ultimately lost the series in seven games.
“It was one of the special moments of my career, Spezza said before facing the Penguins in Game 3. “I don’t mind the karma from 10 years ago.”
The “karma” wasn’t quite there as far as contributing points, although No. 19 hammered a shot that nearly beat Vokoun in the third period, sailing just wide. Another drive to the net resulted in a scramble that Tomas Vokoun managed to smother.
Chris Neil had the two best Ottawa chances, swiping and missing a puck with the net open, and then shoveling a puck into Vokoun when he needed to lift it over the pad.
Spezza is thrilled to get an extra day to recover from his first game in 3.5 months. He said felt “good” though he tired somewhat in the extra time.
“I have to thank the schedule maker,” Spezza said. “That’s a long game for me, to have till Wednesday will definitely help me.”
Better now, but Spezza has been through hell in the past several months. At night, the pain was so bad, he would start sleeping in a bed, be too uncomfortable, and end up sleeping on the floor. His back needed the support.
“My wife got used to sleeping on a pretty hard mattress,” Spezza said.
The back issue affected his sciatic nerve, which rendered his right leg weak. On Jan. 27 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the back was so tight and sore he stood on the bench late in the game, trying to keep it limber. His last act before surgery was to score a shootout goal in a shootout loss to the Penguins that Sunday Jan. 27 afternoon.
When cortisone didn’t work, a scalpel was in order. Again. It will take some time before the back is fully healed, if it ever will be.
“I wouldn’t wish back pain on my worst enemy,” Spezza said, relating how his back hurt so badly he couldn’t even pick up his two young daughters.
He’d already had back surgery once before, managed to keep his back under control last season through therapy and stretching, and was fine during the lockout when he played in the Swiss League.
Almost from the moment the NHL resumed, Spezza knew he was in trouble.
“The first one or two games into the season, it really tightened up.”
Asked if there was something about returning to the NHL that had caused the problem, Spezza blurted honestly: “No, it was horseshit luck, really.”
Anderson needed a bounce back game after getting hooked in Game 2, and he delivered big time, stopping 49 of 50 shots. He knew beforehand how important it was not to fall behind three-zip to the powerhouse Pens.
“You only have so many lives,” Anderson said. “You can’t use ‘em all up.”

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