Pierre McQuire interviews Chris Kunitz after the Penguins 2Ot game seven victory in the Eastern Conference Finals.
PITTSBURGH—It’s the same every time, the end: Men sitting in place, staring into space, spent. The Ottawa Senators stumbled a little toward the end of the regular season; they were not favoured in the first round, or the second, or the third. Against the Pittsburgh Penguins they fell behind 1-0 in Game 7, and 2-1, and both times they dragged themselves out. They weren’t as good as Pittsburgh. But they could have won.
They didn’t. 5:09 into double overtime, after all the heart-attack near-misses, Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz got a pass from Sidney Crosby and the puck was bouncing, just enough. It was rolling and he hammered it and it knuckled past a screen and over Craig Anderson’s shoulder and it all ended right there. The Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending champs, beat Ottawa 3-2 in Game 7, and will play the Nashville Predators for the Stanley Cup. And Ottawa was left staring into the void of summer, and what might have been.
“At the end of the day we lost to a better team,” said Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, who played 39:33 and assisted on both of the Senators’ goals. “I think we did everything we could in our power, and at the end of the day it could have gone either way, but they did it for a little bit longer than we did, and a little bit better. And that’s the way it’s going to be sometimes. We played the best team in the league. We gave them a good match.”
A surprisingly good one, in the end. He was right: Pittsburgh was better: better high-end players, Karlsson perhaps aside, and a superior ability to control games. And in the end, in double overtime, Sidney Crosby — who started the game afire and ended it the same — missed a pass and knew what he was going to do before the puck hit the end boards, and he wheeled it out and created space before hitting Kunitz, his old linemate, now 37. The puck knuckled. Game over.
“When he drives it deep everyone gets scared,” said Kunitz of Crosby. “Sometimes you get lucky, and put one on the net.”
“I didn’t see the puck at all,” said Anderson, who made 39 saves. “I think Crosby had it in the corner, spun off, and they had a guy going to the net with (Jean-Gabriel) Pageau, and between the two of them I didn’t see Kunitz release it at all, and knucklepuck, end over end. Perfect shot. A little bit lucky too, because it was a knuckler.”
“(Anderson) played great,” said Penguins defenceman Ian Cole. “Quite frankly, it probably would have taken that kind of goal, that end-over-end that looped over him and he didn’t see it.”
Craig Anderson #41 of the Ottawa Senators gives up the game winning goal to Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second oevertime in Game Seven to win the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 25, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Ottawa Senators with a score of 3 to 2. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
The Penguins were better. They turned the series in Game 4 and were the superior team in Games 5, and 6, and 7. They won three of those four games only because Anderson stole Game 6, and in the end the Senators hit a ceiling.
“With the group of guys we have and the way that we play, we did everything we could to get as far as we possibly could,” said Karlsson. “And we could have gotten a lucky bounce and we would have liked it. We didn’t, and they won, because over the course of seven games they were better than we were.” Asked how much his fractured heel and injured ankle limited him, Karlsson demurred. “I have no regrets. I think everyone played to their maximum capacity, and it’s no different from me. But yeah, it’s tough times, and you’re never going to be as healthy as you were in November, December.”
It could have ended earlier — Phil Kessel missed the net when in alone in overtime, and had a puck hit a post and danced like a sprite along the top of the bar before tumbling off, and the overhead replay made it look enough like a goal that the crowd booed. But in the end, in a nervy game, the Penguins had much better chances to win: Evgeni Malkin towards the end of regulation, amid a pile of other ones. Yes, the Senators came back when Kunitz scored the first goal, tying it 20 seconds later; yes, they tied it again in the third three minutes after falling behind. It was starting to feel like a form of hockey destiny.
“It was just, I thought it was meant to be,” said Anderson. “I thought it was our time. And you need a little bit of luck on your side, and a lot of things have to go right. We didn’t get a sniff since the first series. We weren’t supposed to be here, weren’t supposed to do this. And inside this room we believed we could anything, and a little bit of puck luck, maybe we’re still standing.”
But they aren’t, and it was the end of a run nobody saw coming. This team overcame Anderson’s wife Nicholle’s cancer, the return of Clarke MacArthur from his two years of concussions, the cancer of former GM Bryan Murray. They had it tough. They got this far, and they could have won, and they didn’t. Dion Phaneuf called it the worst feeling he’s ever had, and he has seen disappointment before. Anderson, asked to describe this team, just said, “Love.”
“Do you have two hours? That’s how long it would take to talk about everybody and everything that these guys have had to go through and endure — a lot of the stuff that is known and some stuff that is not,” said Ottawa coach Guy Boucher. “They gave it their all. They put their soul into it, and it’s really tough. Knowing from the inside how much they deserve to get credit for how wonderful these individuals have been and how resilient and how together this group was. It was a real special, special group.”
“Heartbreaking,” said winger Bobby Ryan. “Because you know the nature of the business side of things. The group will never be the same again. So it is heartbreaking. We weren’t ready for it to end, but they came up one shot better.”
And now it’s the 16th-seeded Nashville Predators, who lost their No. 1 and 2 centres in the conference final, against the defending champs, who lost their No. 1 defenceman halfway through the season. It will be a Cup final between a team that runs on forwards, and a team that runs on defence. The Crosby and Malkin Penguins get a chance to be the first team to repeat since the 1998 Red Wings, and to cement their legacies; Nashville gets a shot at their first Stanley Cup. In a series that wasn’t great, Game 7 was. And Pittsburgh won.