OTTAWA - How much life the Ottawa Senators have left in these playoffs is still to be determined, but there will likely be a lot less questions regarding their post-season makeup than before the previous game.
Ottawa was facing elimination Thursday night in Game 5 of their opening-round Eastern Conference series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. But the Senators remained alive with a 4-3 win in triple overtime at Mellon Arena.
From Pascal Leclaire's 56-save performance to win his first career playoff start to unheralded defenceman Matt Carkner's first career playoff goal that forced Game 6 on Saturday night at Scotiabank Place (7 p.m. ET) there was plenty to like about the Senators. The club show it has more character than many gave it credit for after the Sens appeared to be headed for a quick playoff exit against the reigning Stanley Cup champions.
But with their season on the line, the Senators come out on top of the longest game in their franchise history and the longest of any NHL playoff game so far this spring at 107 minutes six seconds.
Along the way, they racked up an astonishing 46 blocked shots. By comparison, Pittsburgh managed just 17.
"That just shows that guys are willing to sacrifice their body," Senators coach Cory Clouston said Friday, after giving his team the day off to recover.
"We're a good bunch of guys that are really close to each other," added Leclaire, who was given the chance to redeem himself for a largely forgettable first season in Ottawa in the biggest game of the Senators' year so far. "Guys getting bumps and bruises and getting in front of shots and making tough plays - we know guys will do it."
Saturday night's game now becomes the biggest of the year for Ottawa. It will be big for Pittsburgh, too, knowing the Senators will be playing in front of a friendly crowd with a chance to force a deciding Game 7.
"It being the playoffs, we knew they were going to play their best last game and we expect nothing less tomorrow, so we have to worry about ourselves and make sure we are ready to play," Penguins forward Matt Cooke said.
Ottawa is 4-3 all-time in Game 6s, winning on each of the last three occasions it's had to play a sixth game in a series. However, the Senators' record at home in Game 6s does not work in their favour as they've gone just 2-3.
In the meantime, though, the Senators could rest knowing they'd turned in a clutch performance when they had to.
"We feel good about ourselves," said forward Peter Regin, who scored his team-leading third goal of the playoffs in the triumph. "Obviously it was an important win and we're happy about still being in the race."
A lot of the credit for that goes to some unlikely heroes, starting with Leclaire.
Since the new year, Leclaire saw his number of starts become fewer and farther between and had just one regular-season victory to show for 2010. But he answered the bell Thursday.
"I know that nothing really fazes him and when he got his opportunity, he just went in there and did his best," Carkner said.
Leclaire replaced Elliott in the second period of Game 4 after Elliott gave up four goals on 19 shots. Coach Cory Clouston elected to give the 27-year-old native of Repentigny, Que., his first career playoff start Thursday.
"It's definitely the most exciting hockey game I've been part of," he said. "Especially to end up winning it on the road and everything, it's almost the mentality that it's you against the world, so it was a pretty fun night."
Leclaire also got a lot of help from his friends.
The Penguins attempted 125 shots on the Senators' net, 20 of which missed. And with another 46 blocked, Leclaire had a fairly routine night considering his busy workload.
"They did a great job of getting in the lane and blocking shots," Cooke said. "At times, it could relieve pressure for them because they were able to block a shot and get out of the zone."
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh blocked just 17 shots in front of Marc-Andre Fleury, who wound up making 40 saves. Ottawa also missed the net on 27 more tries.
Anton Volchenkov blocked 11 shots for the Senators.
"We've got a lot of big bodies on the D and we've got a lot of willing guys on forward who aren't afraid to go down and block shots," Carkner said. "So whenever the game's on the line, it's a little bit of desperation here and there and just trying to help your team win games."
Carkner, 29, arrived in training camp as a career minor-leaguer with two games of NHL experience to his credit.
However, the six-foot-four, 231-pound defenceman won a spot on the roster because of his toughness and wound up earning him a new contract and a regular spot in the team's top two defensive pairings.
Following Thursday's goal, the native of Winchester, Ont., a tiny town just outside of Ottawa, now has a spot in the team's history book.
"It's pretty surreal," said Carkner, who managed just two goals in 81 games in the regular season. "My phone was exploding (with messages) once I got in the dressing room."
After arriving back home early Friday morning, the Senators took the day off and were trying not to get too caught up in thinking their work was complete.
"I think they understand that game is over and done with and they've got to concentrate on tomorrow," said Clouston, who also dismissed the suggestion from reporters that the Senators can't seem to replicate their road performance, where they are 2-1 in the series, at home, where they are 0-2.
"Our situation hasn't really changed that much from last night," Leclaire added. "We've still got to win to stay alive and that's our main focus right now."
They were hoping the momentum from Thursday would carry over to Saturday's contest. however.
"Hopefully, it's something we can use to our advantage," said forward Matt Cullen, who saw 39 minutes 32 seconds of ice time, the most of any forward on either team - only Ottawa defenceman Erik Karlsson (40:38) and Penguins blue-liner Sergei Gonchar (44:08) managed more. "But at the same time, this team that we're playing knows how to deal with the ups and downs of the playoffs. It's starting right back over."
The Penguins also had Friday off and met with the media at their hotel after arriving in Ottawa.
They were about 10 minutes away from wrapping up the series, but instead, they've got at least another game to go after allowing the Senators to get up off the mat.
Having been to the Stanley Cup final in each of the past two seasons, some of the Penguins appeared to be running on empty throughout overtime, but they'll take another run at putting the Senators down once and for all again.
"It's a seven-game series for a reason," Cooke said. "You prepare yourself to expect everything.
"If you came in with the mentality of winning four straight, you are just setting yourself up to be frustrated and to let yourself down," he said. "We knew they were going to come and give us everything we could handle and part of having the experience of being to the Cup final the last two seasons is not to let the highs get too high and the lows get too low. At the end of the day, it's a race to four."