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Young defensemen stepping up for Senators against Rangers

Ben Harpur, Fredrik Claesson making big impressions to help Ottawa take 2-0 series lead against Rangers

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

OTTAWA -- There he was, out on the ice, under the bright lights and the heat of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This was not something that Ottawa Senators defenseman Ben Harpur expected. But, still, there he was in the second overtime against the New York Rangers, doing his utmost to keep the Rangers away from Craig Anderson and his net. 

He entered the game at 1:14 of the second overtime alongside fellow rookie defenseman Fredrik Claesson, on the ice for a defensive-zone faceoff, and back off 53 seconds later with no damage done -- doing exactly what his coach was asking of him, and allowing for the game-winning goal to come at 2:54 of the period, on the fourth of the game from Jean-Gabriel Pageau, in Ottawa's 6-5 victory.

It was likely the biggest moment of Harpur's NHL career, a spot in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Second Round series between the Senators and Rangers, a moment that he surely did not anticipate coming so soon. 

Harpur, the 6-foot-6 defenseman, played six games in the NHL this season, one against the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 14, the rest in April after the 22-year-old was called up from Binghamton of the American Hockey League. 

 

[RELATED: Complete Senators-Rangers series coverage]

 

"It's been a crazy couple of weeks, for sure," said Harpur, whose expectations extended as far as being one of the "Black Aces" before the postseason started. "Getting the call-up from Binghamton, I knew that I was going to be playing some big games down the stretch to help them get into a playoff spot, but I never would have expected a couple weeks ago that I'd be playing in actual playoff games. 

"It's been a great experience for me. I'm just enjoying it all. This is the most fun I've had coming to the rink and playing hockey in a long time."

Harpur is not the only young defenseman playing for the Senators, who also have Claesson, 24, in the lineup after 33 regular-season games and 49 in his NHL career. But it is Harpur who is the more unlikely choice at this point. 

And he is more than holding his own.

"I thought he played great," Senators coach Guy Boucher said after the Game 2 win at Canadian Tire Centre on Saturday. "He made some unbelievable savant plays. He's had some great shots on net that gave us something there. He's just been unbelievable. That's why I don't see him as a young guy now."

Harpur played 20:45 in Game 2, earned his first NHL point with a secondary assist on Marc Methot's goal at 14:00 of the second period and was not on the ice for any of the five goals the Rangers scored. Claesson, meanwhile, also got an assist, on Mark Stone's goal at 1:28 of the third period, and played 14:56. 

"This guy went through the grind of the American League and it wasn't just this year," Boucher said of Harpur. "He's really built himself up to a solid player and his size is great, the way he defends. But his poise with the puck is really impressive. To make the plays he's making under that type of pressure right now, you can't help but be impressed.

"Claesson's such a hard-working guy that he's been doing so good for us now that that's where quality depth and the development of those players through the American League or through us this year has made a big difference for us."

Video: Pageau scores four to lead Sens to 6-5 win in 2OT

Against the Rangers, the challenge is more difficult than it was against the Boston Bruins in the first round, especially for the young defensemen. The Bruins have one significant scoring line anchored by Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. The Rangers have four dangerous lines. 

That makes it much harder to hide players like Harpur and Claesson -- nearly impossible. 

"The problem is they have big guys on every line," Boucher said. "They've played on the road in Boston against Marchand not because we want to but because obviously when the opponent sees that they're on the ice, they know that they're younger guys, so of course they try to target those guys sometimes."

That will be a factor when the teams head to New York for Game 3 on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports), when the Rangers get the last change and the Senators have less control over the matchups. But at this point, the Senators have confidence in Harpur and Claesson. They have to.

And Harpur and Claesson have confidence in themselves. They have to, as well. They might not be where they expected to be at this point, especially Harpur, but they're going to take the ride for all they can, savoring it and treasuring it and trying not to be awed by the stage.

"I figured it was going to be another year in Binghamton, developing, and my shot would come next year at training camp," Harpur said. "It's a crazy game and obviously injuries happen. It was a great opportunity for me and, yeah, it's been a crazy ride."

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