LCS Hockey: Born Again
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January 17, 2019
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Close Call



Well, that certainly was interesting.

It got a little dicey there for a minute, but the Pittsburgh Penguins came away with the 2-0 series lead they so richly deserve, beating the Ottawa Senators 5-3 in Game Two. I can't remember a playoff game in which one team so thoroughly dominated the other, yet still needed a last-minute goal to prevail. It was bizarre to say the least.

Sidney Crosby set the tone on the very first shift, zooming around the Ottawa zone and setting up all sorts of shots and scoring chances and whatnot. Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Penguins followed suit, unleashing hell upon the stunned Senators. It was shock and awe at its finest.

Yet through it all, Martin Gerber kept things competitive, only surrendering a Sergei Gonchar 5-on-3 power-play goal. When the smoke cleared from the opening assault, Pittsburgh held a 20-8 advantage in shots and an 11-2 edge in scoring chances.

The middle period was more of the same. The Penguins solved Gerber a second time on the power play, with Crosby and Malkin working their usual magic. Kid Crosby fired a pass from high in the left circle through two Senators to Malkin below the right dot. Gene Gene the Scoring Machine then laced a quick pass through another Ottawa defender to Petr Sykora buck naked at the lip of the crease for the easy tap. Tic-Tac-Dough.

Ottawa had a chance to get back into the game when Brooks Orpik took an interference penalty at 8:34. But the Senators couldn't muster any offense with the man-advantage, and Malkin concluded the kill by lunging to the ice and sweeping a pass ahead to Orpik fresh from the box. The brawny defender, known more for his bone-crushing body checks than his soft hands, streaked in alone on Gerber and made a nifty backhand bid five-hole only to have it smothered in the netminder's swank red pads.

Seconds after Orpik was stoned, Malkin lugged the puck back into Ottawa ice and faked a slap shot on left wing before sliding a pass across to Sykora in the right circle. The Czech sniper rifled a wicked one-timer into the twine for the 3-0 lead. There was much rejoicing.

At that point, the game and the series appeared solid gone. Michel Therrien even posed for a picture in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner. It was a complete and utter mismatch. The idea of Ottawa scoring even one goal seemed a preposterous notion at best. The cornermen were yelling to stop the fight. I could have sworn I saw the Senators waiving a white towel, but it turns out it was just Antoine Vermette wiping his visor after getting too close to a sputtering Bryan Murray.

There really seemed no point in even playing the rest of the series. While Pittsburgh fans were already planning their Stanley Cup parade, few noticed Shean Donovan crashing the crease and chipping a puck over Marc-Andre Fleury for Ottawa's first goal of the series. It came just 33 seconds after Sykora's tally and managed to give the Sens life.

Donovan's goal was luckier than a four-leaf horseshoe. The outcome remained a foregone conclusion. At least it did until Cory Stillman jammed a puck between Fleury's pads on the power play at 16:11.

Even though the scoreboard read 3-2, it all seemed rather silly. I mean, it was kind of "cute" that the Sens mustered two goals, but it was difficult taking them seriously. The Penguins were still controlling play, outshooting Ottawa 40-19 after two periods. And aside from the two fluky goals, the Sens had mounted nary a hint of offense. The third period was a mere formality, right?

Oh, those zany Senators. They wouldn't quit. And at 8:51 of the third, they actually drew even on a goal by the great Cody Bass. Yes, that's right, Cody Bass. I know what you're thinking. No, it wasn't the Cody Bass, but his goal still tied the score 3-3.

Max Talbot lost Bass going to the net, allowing the Ottawa rookie to stand all alone in front and swat his own rebound underneath Fleury. And in case you were wondering, Randy Robitaille was the guy who threw the puck to Bass.

How could the Penguins be expected to protect a 3-2 lead when they were facing that lethal scoring duo of Randy Robitaille and Cody Bass? They're the Adam Oates and Brett Hull of their generation. You can't stop Randy Robitaille and Cody Bass; you can only hope to not have them on your team.

Randy Robitaille and Cody Bass? Who canceled? The Make-A-Wish people are getting a little carried away.

Playoff hockey can be a harsh mistress. The Penguins had dominated every aspect of the game, yet they were tied 3-3 and on the verge of squandering a golden opportunity to seize control of the series. The whole thing was frighteningly reminiscent of their February 23 meeting, in which the Penguins waddled out to a commanding 3-0 lead only to watch the Senators storm back for a 4-3 overtime win.

But on that dreadful day, Daniel Alfredsson did the honors in the extra session. Alfredsson wasn't around to provide the winner this time. Instead, Martin Lapointe was taking his place on the top line alongside Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley. Because what better way to replace Alfredsson than with a washed up stooge with cement hands, lead feet, and a propensity for bad penalties? That Bryan Murray is a genius, I tell ya! A genius!

Lapointe came through as expected, smacking Jarkko Ruutu in the face with a high stick at 1:14 left in regulation. And with the game on the line, Kid Crosby delivered.

Sid beat Vermette on the offensive-zone draw in the left circle and cycled the puck out of the corner and up the left wing boards, outmuscling Anton Volchenkov as he went. Sid slipped a pass to Marian Hossa in the slot, and Hossa fired a quick backhander that Gerber kicked aside. Ryan Malone pounced on the rebound and darted behind the cage, stuffing home a nifty wraparound inside the right post to send the Igloo crowd into hysterics. Malone added an empty-netter at 19:53 to finish the scoring.


TURNING POINT
Lapointe's high-sticking penalty was the difference. Even though the Penguins had dominated the entire game, once the score got 3-3, the Senators definitely started to carry the play. There was just an uneasy feeling in the arena. Hossa even botched what appeared to be a sure goal, skating behind Gerber in the crease and fumbling the puck wide. It was getting a little scary, and then Lapointe came through like a champ.

There's simply no need to take a penalty when you're backchecking against Ruutu in neutral ice. And the refs had put the whistles away, ignoring blatant penalties on both teams down the stretch. Only an obvious stick to the face would raise the arm. So way to go, Marty! You're the tops. But that's what he deserves for being one of those filthy Red Wings. (Sunshine) Lapointe!


TOP PERFORMANCES - OTTAWA

Martin Gerber: If not for Gerber, this game would have been over in the first period. The Penguins could have easily hung a snowman or a Happy Meal on the Sens. This wasn't even close to being a competitive hockey game. Without Alfredsson and Mike Fisher in the lineup, Ottawa is simply no match for Pittsburgh. The difference between these two clubs is significant, and it is profound.

It's difficult pinpointing Gerber's best save. He ended up with 49 on the night, as the Birds outshot the Sens 54-30, and most of the stops were of the spectacular variety. He robbed Kid Crosby numerous times, and he even denied Malkin on a few individual efforts that would have gone down in playoff lore.

Anton Volchenkov: The Russian freight train played 21:18 on the night. But it's amazing he's doing anything after taking a Malkin slap shot to the helmet in Game One. The shot struck Volchenkov's helmet with such force, his head basically exploded, slicing his skull to the bone. He makes the list just for showing up. The Senators aren't exactly known for their heart. No worries with Volchenkov, though.

Not Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley: Oddly enough, Reed Richards was in attendance last night. Yeah, he heard Ottawa had two Invisible Girls.

Spezza and Heatley are so bad, they're terrible. They're complete non-factors. The Sens were gonna put them on milk cartons, but they couldn't even find their pictures. It's rather embarrassing.


IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCES - PITTSBURGH

Evgeni Malkin: Malkin was once again the best player on the ice. He was electrifying each time he touched the puck. He finished with three assists, giving him six points in the series. The Senators have no answer. Then again, who does?

Sidney Crosby: If not for Gerber, Sid could have had two or three tallies. He still ended up with four assists on the night, marking perhaps the quietest four-point night in playoff history.

I've said it many times before, but someone has to curve Crosby's stick. He'll never become an elite goal-scorer with that straight blade. Yeah, I realize he's still pretty good, and he'll probably crack 50 someday on sheer volume of chances, but he'll never reach his ultimate potential as a goal-scorer unless he uses a curve. If Tiger Woods can alter his swing, Sid the Kid can break out the blowtorch.

Petr Sykora: Sykora's second goal was sick. If he's not the best one-time shooter in hockey, he's not far behind Brendan Shanahan. But watching Sykora drift backwards into shooting position to accept Malkin's pass was a thing of beauty. And it was a laser rocket shot into the twine.

I used to always make fun of Sykora in the past for his streaky scoring and questionable desire, but he opened my eyes when he signed with the Birds. Free agency wasn't a minute old when his agent called Ray Shero and said Sykora wanted to play in Pittsburgh. Sykora took less money for the chance to be part of hockey's next dynasty. That's what winners do. And he's been a solid citizen all season, even when Therrien was jerking him around early in the year.

Sykora shares a freakish chemistry with Malkin. The UFO Hunters are arriving in Pittsburgh this week to investigate.

Ryan Malone: Malone nearly wasn't around to score the winner. He took a couple brutal hits in the first period, including one nasty spill in a collision with Volchenkov that saw Malone's head crack the ice. After another rough go in the corner, Malone briefly left the game with what was called a "lower body" injury. Yeah, right. "Lower body." Malone used to have the reputation for being a tomcat, so I guess the argument could be made his brain is in his pants.

But Malone's a Pittsburgh boy. Concussed or not, you knew he'd come back. When you grow up watching the Pirates, you learn to deal with pain.


Jason Spezza
Marc-Andre Fleury: It's easy to forget about Fleury when Gerber is standing on his head, but the Flower turned in another solid performance. All three goals were garbage. They were the result of poor coverage and worse luck. Fleury's still at the top of his game. He even went all Superman to stop Spezza, diving chest-first across the crease after his skates got tangled in traffic to deny Johnny Storm's sister. It was fantastic.


OTHER STUFF
* It was entertaining watching Lapointe and Chris Neil try to intimidate the Penguins. They targeted Gary Roberts in the early going. Yeah, that's a good idea. Roberts has crazy eyes. Charles Manson thinks Gary might be a little off. Roberts never went with either, but he told them both, and I quote, "It's coming." Sounds ominous. Get your popcorn ready.

* Along those same lines, Neil tried to confront Ruutu only to back down the second Hal Gill stepped to him. After a rough start with the team, Gill has been a godsend for the Penguins. He gives them a physical presence they've always lacked along the back line. While he isn't a huge hitter, he's just a monster out there. Rest assured, if things get ugly, Gill will answer the bell.

* Obviously, without Alfredsson and Fisher, this series isn't even fair. The Penguins would have won anyway, but it wouldn't be so lopsided. Give the Sens credit. They put in an honest effort in Game Two; they simply can't match Pittsburgh's talent.

It's like night and day from last year. Ottawa clearly made two big mistakes in letting Tom Preissing and Joe Corvo leave town. They're getting nothing whatsoever in the way of offense from the blue line. Last year, Corvo and Preissing gave the Pens fits, combining for seven points in the series.


LOOKING AHEAD
Ottawa is a dead team walking. Had the Sens somehow managed to steal Game Two, it would have only postponed the inevitable. As it is now, this series shouldn't even make it back to the Steel City.


LCS Hockey: Born Again
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