OTTAWA – Injuries have forced the Ottawa Senators to rely on young players all season long, and it was those very players that brought them within a win of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Mika Zibanejad, Cory Conacher and Kyle Turris were the catalysts of a dramatic 3-2 overtime Tuesday night in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Montreal Canadiens that gave Ottawa a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 series.
Zibanejad cut Montreal's 2-0 lead in half with his first career playoff goal at 11:05 of the third period, Conacher tied it with his own first career postseason goal, firing home a shot from just outside the crease with 22.6 seconds left in regulation. Turris won it for the Senators at 2:32 of overtime.
The Senators lead the series 3-1 with Game 5 back in Montreal on Thursday night (7 p.m. ET; CBC, RDS, CNBC).
Zibanejad and Conacher both angered coach Paul MacLean earlier in the game with some careless mistakes. But he certainly was not angry with them after the game.
"Sometimes [young players] do make some mistakes we don't like. But we have enough confidence in them to put them back on the ice and give them an opportunity to contribute to the team," a beaming MacLean said. "Tonight, Mika Zibanejad was one of those players and Cory Conacher was another player that during the game had some struggles and we put them both back on the ice at different times and they both scored goals.
"It was a great credit to them for staying focused in the game and taking advantage of the opportunity."
As for Turris, the back injury that continues to sideline No. 1 center Jason Spezza has forced him into a bigger role on the team, and he was an essential element to this victory. He crashed the crease of Montreal goaltender Carey Price on Conacher's tying goal, drawing an assist, and he scored the winner on Peter Budaj after Price was hurt at the very end of regulation.
It was the second straight season Turris scored an overtime goal in Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs -- last year's goal tied the series with the New York Rangers 2-2; this one gave the Senators a 3-1 stranglehold.
"He's been a player that's grown a lot with us this year, having to take over the No. 1 center position even if he's not that No. 1 center," MacLean said. "But he played against a lot of the best guys in the League. He's really started to come out of the tunnel at the other end and there's a light there. His overall game has improved so much this year, and that was a factor on that [tying] goal."
The Canadiens find themselves facing elimination even though they feel they were the better team in three of the four games. Coach Michel Therrien was puzzled after the game that a faceoff just prior to Zibanejad's first goal was taken on the wrong side of the ice. He thought it should have been held on the left side of the ice, so he sent out left-handed center David Desharnais. Instead it was held on the right, Desharnais ultimately got kicked out of the circle and Brendan Gallagher lost a draw and six seconds later the Senators' comeback had begun.
"Every detail counts in a game," Therrien said calmly. "I don't understand why they decided to put the faceoff on the right side when [Daniel] Alfredsson shot the puck from the left side. When Carey stopped the puck, we sent a left centerman because it wasn't even close. Every detail counts."
Therrien was still pleased with how his team played, particularly since they were without captain Brian Gionta, who was ruled out with an upper-body injury earlier Tuesday. The Canadiens controlled play through two periods, but were outshot 13-4 in the third.
Therrien, however, didn't mind his team's performance in the final period.
"We came to play, and that's exactly what we did. We certainly deserved a better fate. It's tough to explain. Really tough to explain," Therrien said. "I thought we were pushing the pace [in the third] and we didn't give up many scoring chances. The first goal opened the door for them. It's not supposed to happen like this."
The Senators were down only 2-0 coming into the third largely because of their goaltender Craig Anderson – who made 21 saves through 40 minutes and finished with 26 on the night.
Ottawa's hard work in the third paid off at 11:55, when a Sergei Gonchar point shot went off the end glass and rolled to the corner to Chris Neil, who saw Zibanejad slip in backdoor. Neil fired a pass through the crease, and the puck went in off Zibanejad's skate. The play was called a goal on the ice and survived a video review.
Then with Anderson pulled for an extra attacker, the Canadiens were called twice for icing as the Senators pressed for the tying goal. It came when Alfredsson centered the puck from behind the net and it bounced over to Conacher with Turris crashing the net.
"I wouldn't say we were lucky, because this is a team that has comeback before," Conacher said. "But there's some hockey gods up there that helped us throughout the game and throughout the third period."
Price suffered a lower body injury on the goal and did not come out for overtime, forcing Budaj into a must-win game.
He stopped the first shot he saw from Jakob Silfverberg at 2:03, but when Turris flipped a harmless looking shot on goal from far out, Budaj missed it and it sailed in. Budaj immediately looked at defenseman Raphael Diaz in front of the net after Diaz waved at the knuckleball shot with his elbow. It's possible Diaz slightly deflected the puck before it found a hole between Budaj's arm and his body.
"It was surprising seeing Budaj come in," Turris said. "We knew he hadn't played for a bit and was probably a little cold, so we just tried to put pucks on net and we were lucky one went in."
But in spite of a slow start, the Senators had something special left in them at the end -- and it brought them one step closer to advancing.