MONTREAL -- It doesn't have to be pretty. It just has to work.
The Ottawa Senators have proven that time and again this season, gutting out wins when either their injured list or the shot count or the tough opposition suggested they had no business doing so. That special feeling, that resolve, has carried over into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and led the Senators into the second round.
The Senators defeated the Montreal Canadiens 6-1 on Thursday night to win their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series in five games, extending an unlikely story of overcoming injuries to vital players for at least one more round of spring hockey.
It was the first series victory for the Senators since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2007. Only four members of that team remain today – captain Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Neil, Chris Phillips and the injured Jason Spezza.
"This year, with everything we went through with the injuries, I don't think a lot of people gave us a chance. We proved them wrong," Alfredsson said. "That's what you want in a room, having 20-plus guys coming to work every day and just giving everything you have. We just find a way a lot of nights."
A big reason why the Senators found a way in this series was the man playing in goal.
Craig Anderson stymied the Canadiens once again Thursday, just as he did the entire series, stopping 33 shots and withstanding a fierce first-period charge as Montreal played to extend its own unlikely season for one more game.
But it wasn't to be, as an injury-ravaged Canadiens team scored nine goals in five games – and just six at even strength – against Anderson, who stopped 171 of 180 shots for a .950 save percentage.
"A lot of times I talk with my coaching staff and also my boys around the cottage and I say, 'We should change the game of hockey to goalie.' Or to goaltender. Because that makes the difference," Senators coach Paul MacLean said. "And I think for our team, Craig Anderson was the MVP of this playoff series. He was outstanding in every game. He gives us a chance to bend but not break and gives us a chance to recover and get out bearings. Once we do that, we seem to be able to establish our game and I think he's a big part of it."
But Anderson is not the lone reason Ottawa overcame so much to reach this point. All the injuries allowed the Senators' young players to develop faster than they would have -- to the point where some who may have been still in the minors are now playing big roles for a team that just made it to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"Certainly there's great growth, and not only with our players from Binghamton [of the American Hockey League] but our players like Kyle Turris and Zack Smith, the growth that they've had as hockey players has been outstanding this year," MacLean said. "Down the road it's only going to get better and better for our organization.
"You look at Jean-Gabriel Pageau, he was a player that was going to play maybe in and out of the lineup in Binghamton. With the injuries that we had, now suddenly he's playing all the time down there for Luke Richardson and he learns how to play. Now he's playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and gets a hat trick[ in Game 3]; I mean, if you would have told us that January 19, I would have said, ‘Are you crazy? That ain't happening.' Eric Gryba, that ain't happening, he's not ready to play on our team. He needs to spend a whole season and a half more down there.
"But I think what we've proved, if you have good young players and you provide them with a good opportunity and a stable environment with a leadership group, that they can improve very quickly and they can play in the league. We just have to not forget that."
Playing without starting goaltender Carey Price, captain Brian Gionta, center Lars Eller and grinders Brandon Prust and Ryan White, the Canadiens came out extremely strong in the first period as they were pushed by a Bell Centre crowd who wanted to see the home team play one more game this season.
"In the last two weeks we had a lot of bad luck," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. "But for us and my approach with the team and their approach since day one, that was not an excuse. I don't think the players, with their attitudes, used that as an excuse because every game, the way they were preparing themselves, the way they started the game, I could tell that was not an excuse."
The Senators certainly weren't about to feel sorry for Montreal's injury situation, having themselves overcome long-term injuries to Spezza, defenseman Erik Karlsson, defenseman Jared Cowen, forward Milan Michalek and Anderson, among others, to reach the point where they held a 3-1 lead in the series and came to Bell Centre with a chance to win the franchise's first series in six years.
"Since I came here we had the '07 group led by [Alfredsson] and the veteran players, and we had the Bingo boys that won the [American Hockey League] championship; and now they've won something together, they've won a playoff series together," MacLean said of his mix of veterans and young players. "They're actually one group. There's no separation amongst them. I thought they played their hearts out, played with a lot of determination and a will to win and that's what made the difference."
The Canadiens were one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season, going from last in the Eastern Conference to winning the Northeast Division, a turnaround orchestrated by general manager Marc Bergevin and coach Michel Therrien that centered around a young core comprised of Price, P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty and newcomers Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher.
"We took a step in the right direction, but we realize we still have a lot of work to do," Therrien said. "We need to keep things in perspective."
In spite of the five-game loss, that future remains bright for the Canadiens, but it was hard to digest for many of the fans at Bell Centre on Thursday night. There weren't that many fans remaining at Bell Centre by the time the teams shook hands, but those who remained cheered throughout the final minute of the game and acknowledged what the Canadiens accomplished as the team saluted them one last time.
"They were supporting us to the final buzzer there," forward Max Pacioretty said. "It's nice to see the city and the fans take pride in their team. We wish we had a better outcome, hopefully next year."
The Senators relied on Anderson to keep them in games long enough for them to figure out a way to win throughout the series; Thursday night was no different, as Montreal got the game's first five shots on goal and was buzzing around the Ottawa net early.
A terrific glove save just past the one-minute mark of the first period off Rene Bourque was only a taste of what was to come from the Senators goaltender, who finished the first period with 15 saves.
Anderson was asked afterwards what kind of impact that save can have on the bench.
"I think it just relaxes everybody," he said. "I think guys on the bench can take a deep breath and say, ‘All right, we might have lost the first couple of shifts there and they came out strong, but we're still 0-0 and we can still get momentum back with that save in the next couple of shifts.'"
In the other net, Peter Budaj was making the first playoff start of his career at age 30 -- and two shots into that start the Senators went ahead 1-0 when Budaj allowed a juicy rebound off a Matt Kassian shot that Zack Smith pounced on and scored at 2:17.
"It seemed like every time they got…" Therrien said, before trailing off and catching himself. "They capitalized on their chances, let's put it this way."
The Canadiens had yet another sequence of about a minute buzzing around the Senators net in the seventh minute of the period, one where Bourque hit the goal post, Jarred Tinordi hit the side of the net and Galchenyuk shot just wide with an open net.
About five minutes later Cory Conacher scored his second of the series when a puck went off Erik Condra's skate, off the post, off the back of Budaj's pad and sat in the crease for a tap-in at 12:26.
The way Anderson was playing at the other end, it felt like the game – and the series – was over. As it turns out, that was all the goal support he needed.
Subban scored on a power play with 14.9 seconds left in the period, but that was as close as the Canadiens would get.
Turris scored his third goal of the series shorthanded at 11:29 of the second to make it 3-1 and a third period in which the Senators scored three power-play goals was essentially a coronation for a team that referred to itself all year long as the Pesky Sens.
That peskiness has gotten the Senators all the way to the second round of the playoffs.