Mike Hoffman broke a scoreless tie midway through the third period and Craig Anderson made 28 saves as the Senators avoided elimination with a 1–0 win over the Canadiens in Game 4. Here are three thoughts as the series heads back to the Bell Centre for Game 5 on Friday night at 7 p.m. ET.
1. A change of plans
When you’re down 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, it’s probably a good idea to throw out what hasn’t worked and try something completely different. That’s exactly what the Senators did on Wednesday night, abandoning the first-period sprint and pulling back on the punishment to focus on limiting mistakes with a more positionally sound game. The result was long stretches of passionless hockey, more like the fourth game of the regular season than a must-win Game 4 in the playoffs, but son of a gun, it worked.
What Ottawa gave up in urgency it got back in control. The Sens kept their emotions in check, favoring the simple play over the dramatic and so for the first time they avoided the second period swoon that dragged them down in each of the previous three games. By the time they got to the third period, they slowly ramped up the energy, finishing their checks but carefully picking their spots. The Canadiens, maybe lulled to sleep by the torpid early pace, couldn’t keep up.
Fittingly, the game turned on one of those third period hits. Mika Zibanejad, playing his best game of the series, tracked down Montreal's Tom Gilbert in the corner to the right of Habs netminder Carey Price and plastered the defenseman into the boards. Sensing the impending hit, Gilbert rushed his clear of the puck, sending it directly to Ottawa’s Cody Ceci at the point. Meanwhile, Zibanejad turned and raced to the crease where he created the perfect screen for Hoffman’s far side laser.
So now the Sens head to Montreal with their confidence restored and that all-important first win in their pockets. They still face long odds down 3-1 with two of the final three games at the Bell Centre, but the Sens already have done the impossible once this season. Maybe we shouldn’t write them off just yet.
2. Dave Cameron’s hunch
The coach of the Senators knew he’d be second-guessed all summer long for not playing Andrew Hammond if his team was swept aside Wednesday night. But he also knew what he had in Craig Anderson. It wasn’t just a matter of the veteran coming off a strong performance in Game 3. It was his résumé. Despite an 10-13 playoff record coming into this game, he’s proved that he has an upside as high as any goalie in the league at this time of year. He might not bring it consistently, but after two appearances it looks like Anderson has found that elevated zone. In six-plus periods so far he’s stopped 75 of the 77 shots he’s faced for a 0.93 GAA and a .974 save percentage.
Anderson made his best stop of the night late in the second, sprawling to rob Brandon Prust on a shorthanded breakaway bid. It was a terrific read, one that saw him recover from biting too soon on a backhand fake by sealing off the right post to stone Brandon Prust’s forehander. After that, he simply took care of business with positioning and poise.
That calm demeanor might be the thing that should worry the Habs the most. While the rest of the Senators celebrated wildly at the final horn, Anderson stayed calm and focused for several moments before accepting the congratulations of his teammates.
He was that deep in the zone. If he stays there, the Sens might yet make this a series.
3. Montreal’s missing urgency
It’s tough to sweep another team in the NHL playoffs, especially when that clinching game is in the other team’s barn. So maybe this loss was more about what the Senators did right than what the Canadiens did wrong. Still, the Habs played like they had four games left to win just one. The inability to muster up that killer instinct, especially with the series there to be won midway into the third period doesn’t look good.
Neither did Montreal’s power play. At this point it’s more of a power kill, a two-minute exercise in futility that bleeds the Canadiens of momentum and confidence. At some point Montreal coach Michel Therrien has to change up the personnel in order to alter the chemistry. David Desharnais’ unwillingness to shoot the puck makes him a prime candidate for removal. Max Pacioretty stays, but he hasn’t looked right in either of the games played in Ottawa. Whether he’s nursing the lingering effects of the concussion he suffered late in the season or some other injury, he’s clearly not the same player who was second on the team with seven power play goals during the regular campaign.
The habs also have to expect something more from Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, both of whom had dead legs in this one. Gallagher’s taken a lot of physical abuse in this series and he has to be frustrated by his inability to draw a call, but there has to be more compete in his game than there was in this one.