I am a sports fan. Unapologetically. I have been hooked on sports ever since I went to my first live sporting event when I was 8 or 9. The Ottawa Rough Riders were the biggest team in town and getting a ticket to a Riders’ game in the late 1960s was like getting the golden ticket to the chocolate factory in that old movie. The noise, the colours, the smells. It was absolutely intoxicating to a kid like me. I can remember conversing with the late, great Earl McRae back more than twenty years ago and talking about the atmosphere at Lansdowne Park back in the 60s and 70s. I said to him, “Earl, do you remember the sound of those plastic air horns and the smell of cigars at the Riders’ games?” To my surprise, he said to me “Oh my gawd, you’re right! I forgot about the cigars!”
Smoking a cigar or anything else is verboten at any public event now, but after the incredible and unlikely 6-5 overtime win by the Ottawa Senators over the first-place Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night, the players and coaches of the Sens would be excused if they lit up a stogie or two.
In fact, that Senators’ win wrapped up about a sixty-or-so hour period of some of the most satisfying hockey television that we sports fans could have seen in a long time. It all started on Saturday afternoon when the Senators met up with the Winnipeg Jets. That game began with the note that the coaches, D.J. Smith and Paul Maurice were both captains at one time for the Windsor Spitfires. (I’m always up for a completely fascinating and useless piece of trivia.) Oh, and Jason York, who was doing the colour commentary for that game on Hockey Night In Canada, not only was a former Senator, but also a former Windsor Spitfire.
My own view of this game was that, for Marcus Hogberg, this was the best game I had seen him play as an Ottawa Senator. The concern up to this point had been that his positioning had been awful. There were numerous times, through the season thus far, that he appeared to have no idea where his net was behind him and that fact showed up in both his goals against average and his save percentage. But against the Jets on Saturday, his positioning was tremendously strong and enabled him to make a lot of saves on tic-tac-toe plays that would have been goals had he not been where he was. This was also a really good game for Ottawa as a team. We have seen countless times this season in which they have gotten way behind in terms of shots on goal and shots at the goal, but in this game, they held their own and , despite a slow start in the first period, once they got going, they forced Connor Hellebuyck to be at his very high standard best. Mark Scheifele got the Jets on the board in the second period. But Evgeni Dadanov tied the game later in that second frame. Dadanov is such a smart player, able to slip his checker for just a brief moment when he needs to. One thing that goes unspoken often is his ability to score. In each of the last three seasons, he has managed to pot at least 25 goals while toiling for the Florida Panthers. The Senators managed to scratch out a victory in this game after a miscommunication between Hellebuyck and his defenseman caused a giveaway. The puck was worked back to Mike Reilly and his shot was deflected by Brady Tkachuk past the Jets’ goalie with just eight seconds left to give Ottawa a much needed win!
Later that night, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs squared off at the Scotiabank Arena. The Leafs outshot the Habs 9-6 in the first twenty minutes and emerged from that period ahead 1-0. Usually, it’s Mitch Marner who sets up Auston Matthews, but this time it was the other way around. Marner’s goal came early in the opening period. After two, the shots were 16-13 for the blue team. Carey Price was at his fundamental best in this one. And he had to be. The Leafs move the puck around so quickly and so easily and, for a goalie, if his positioning is off even one iota, this Toronto team will put the puck behind him. But on Saturday night, Price looked like the Price of last spring or the Price of old. He was rock solid in knowing where he was in the net. The Canadiens began imposing themselves on this game as the third period wore on. Tyler Toffoli tied the game 6:11 into the third. Brendan Gallagher knocked a Jeff Petry shot down and then put it behind Freddie Andersen later in the period to give Montreal the W. I get that some people may not be thrilled to see Montreal win, but then, to see the Leafs land on the wrong side of the result cannot be construed as a bad thing. One incredible stat from this one: Montreal outhit Toronto 46-16 in this game! Fast forward to Monday night. The Senators in the provincial capital to play that blue team again. And those Leafs asserted themselves early in this one. At one point in the opening period, Toronto was outshooting the Sens 11-2, and it looked like it was worse than that. The Leafs got on the board first with a really pretty goal. Marner controlled the puck drawing a couple of Ottawa defenders toward him. He then passed the puck over to Joe Thornton who got it back across through a narrow opening to a wide open Matthews. You cannot give a guy like Matthews any time – and I mean ANY time – to set up a shot. He has such a lethal release and the ability to put the puck anywhere he wants. Anyway, Matthews scored a goal that, for him, looked easy. Hogberg had no chance going 1-on-1 with him. When it was 2-0 for Toronto, Hogberg was forced to make a tremendous, sprawling save on William Nylander. The Senators got the puck back and moved it up the ice. Tim Stuetzle made a nice pass over to Drake Batherson who netted it to make it a 2-1 game. The Sens fell behind 3-1, 4-1 and 5-1 (Matthews again set up all alone with time to roof it on Hogberg) and the game was looking out of reach late into the second period. But while killing a penalty in the dying seconds of that frame, the Senators intercepted a John Tavares giveaway in the Toronto zone and Nick Paul was the beneficiary. He was able to put the puck behind Andersen and give his team a breath of life. Early in the third, as the Leafs’ power play was coming to an end, Artem Zub left the penalty box and received a pass by the Leafs’ blue line that set him up all alone on Andersen. Zub put a pretty move on the Leafs’ netminder and ignited Twitter with a goal to make it 5-3. “Make Zub the first choice in the shootout!” came the cries from social media. After Connor Brown made it 5-4, it was officially time to focus intensely on the TV. Time wound down. With just over two minutes remaining in the game, it was time for D.J. Smith to shine. He called for a timeout with the faceoff about to take place in the Toronto end. The coach drew out a play. He pulled Hogberg. The Sens worked the puck toward the Leafs’ goal and once again, it was Dadanov who got it past Andersen. The game was tied. And Smith, if not a genius, then certainly, was a guy who, regardless of his team’s record, never gave up. Mitch Marner had a gilt-edged chance to win the game in the last two minutes, but Hogberg made the save. And, just so it’s noted, even though the Leafs got five goals against him, Hogberg made a bunch of really fine saves to give his team a chance to stay in the game. As the overtime period began and developed, it was fitting, and gratifying, that it was Dadanov that ended it with the winning goal on a breakaway on Andersen.
That goal ended approximately 58 hours of very satisfying hockey television. Just saying. For the Senators, it was the first time they won two straight games all season. And for the Leafs, it was the first time they lost two consecutive games this year. Can you feel the bitterness and frustration oozing out of Toronto after this game? Oh well. On Tuesday morning, I was faced with a personal decision. Should I wear a Habs mask to work? Or should I wear a Sens mask? Have I mentioned that I live and work in Toronto?
Cheers, folks. Have fun and stay safe!
By Howie Mooney | Sens Nation Hockey