BOSTON – If Robin Lehner can continue to fulfill Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson's every command, the Senators might have their injury replacement for goaltender Craig Anderson.
One day before the Senators visited the Boston Bruins for a rematch of last Saturday's 5-3 Boston win, Alfredsson and Lehner engaged in a brief exchange of words at practice.
"It's unbelievable. I was joking with him [Monday]," Alfreddson recalled. "He's saying it would be nice to win [Tuesday]. I said that if you have a shutout, I can guarantee I'll score a goal. ... He was kind of laughing."
Well, Lehner stopped 32 shots for his first NHL shutout Tuesday night at the TD Garden. While Alfredsson didn't score, his perfectly timed screen of Tim Thomas aided Erik Karlsson's first-period power-play goal that was all the offense the Sens would need in a 1-0 victory.
"But he played solid," Alfredsson continued while speaking about the 20-year-old goaltender. "I'm really impressed with how he handled the whole ups and downs of the game. And in the third period when we were on our heels a little bit, he stepped up and made some great saves."
Ottawa is now just one point behind Boston for first place in the Northeast Division. While the Bruins hold four games in hand, the Senators are turning what was once a runaway into a race. They've won seven of their last eight games, including the last two with Lehner in net. Alex Auld started the only loss, which was against the Bruins Saturday night – the fourth Boston win against Ottawa in four tries this season before Tuesday night's streak-buster.
"I think after the way we've played them close, and they're a real good team ... so it's a big game for us to get over that hurdle of beating them," said Ottawa coach Paul MacLean. "They've handled us and we've played good in parts of games, and actually tonight we probably played good in most of the game tonight. But I thought the third period they took over the game. But we were able to hold the fort."
Ottawa outshot Boston, 31-15, through the first two periods. Through 40 minutes, though, Karlsson's goal was the only production the Senators had to show for their efforts. Karlsson fired a slap shot around a standing screen by Milan Michalek and a moving screen by Alfredsson, who was crashing the net.
"Yeah, I didn't see it. I barely saw it released and where I saw it going was blocker side," said Thomas after a 37-save effort. "I had to go behind Alfredsson to hopefully make the save, to hopefully hope that it hits me. It actually did knick off of me I believe, unless it was his stick that felt the same way."
The Ottawa power play is now a remarkable 9-for-22 over its last seven games.
"It's like everything. It flows through confidence," said Alfredsson. "Sometimes you're forcing it and when you're struggling you wait that extra half second. Now we're at times not knowing what we're doing ourselves and that makes it tough for the other team to read. We're moving ourselves and moving the puck and making it tough to get a hold of us. And then we're doing a good job of getting traffic and people in front."
The Bruins were playing their first home game in more than two weeks after they returned from a six game road trip. The positive vibes from their 3-2-1 trip, however, didn’t carry over. Oftentimes teams suffer a letdown during a homecoming game, and Bruins head coach Claude Julien said that his staff did all it could to prevent what unfolded.
"I think we kind of anticipated as a coaching staff that it would be a challenge, before the game. And that was the case. It happens every time," said Julien. "You wish you had some answers to modify that so it wouldn't happen, but it does. And those first two periods were really painful to watch and then to see, and our guys just didn't have any legs. Our game was very, very slow and even faceoffs, everything, we just struggled in all areas."
The Bruins then produced a third period that Julien hopes is a "good sign for the next game." They outshot the Senators, 17-7, and finally made Lehner work over the final 20 minutes.
"I think the first few periods were hard for me too because I had to stand around for a bit. And then they still had some pretty good chances when they got them," said Lehner. "I think the D helped me a lot to see the puck and take away rebounds. I think we had a real good team game today."
Boston was granted three power plays in the third period, including one after Sergei Gonchar was called for hooking Zdeno Chara with just 2:09 remaining in regulation. That late man-advantage allowed the Bruins to pull Thomas and go on a 6-on-4 for most of the final minute of the game. However, Boston didn't muster a shot on net over the course of that entire power play.
Although the surprising Senators are now just a whisker away from Boston in the standings and in great position to at least lock up a playoff berth, MacLean doesn't want his minions losing focus on the overall goal of the season.
"We don't look at the standings as a team on a daily basis and say, 'This is where we are.' But we know everybody looks at it. I think the team itself can look at and realize where we are. But it's not something we put an emphasis on every day," the coach said. "We're still growing and building as a team on our foundation. And, yes, we're having some success, and yes, we're improving where we are in the standings, but I don't think we're in position to sit there and say with confidence that we're here or locked into anything. So we just try to continue to take it on a daily basis and a game-by-game basis and try to get a little better."