by Chet Sellers
Folks, if you're like me, the thing you probably missed the most during last year's lockout-shortened season was a Tuesday night date in Columbus. When I think of rivalry in the National Hockey League, when I think of tradition, I think of the 5-4-2 all-time series between the Senators and the Blue Jackets. And when I think about how that rivalry can blossom now that the Blue Jackets have moved to the Eastern Conference, I'm not going to lie to you - I get excited.
|Who can forget this moment?|
Tonight we watch two proud, historic NHL franchises renew a long-standing blood feud. The storylines are endless - how will Marc Methot be welcomed back to the city that drafted him? Does Nick Foligno take revenge against his old team by running Robin Lehner? Oh, Foligno isn't playing? Well, what's Nikita Filatov up to, anyway? Is Pascale Leclaire still hurt?
More importantly, this game against the 5-8-0 Blue Jackets, one of those struggling Metropolitan division teams you've been hearing about, marks the first of three winnable games for the Senators this week. If the Senators are going to start climbing back into playoff position, they're going to to do it on the broad, horse-like shoulders of Robin Lehner, who will be the starter at least until Craig Anderson recovers from Sunday's scary collision with Valeri KNEE-chushkin (see what I did there? It feels good to laugh).
If Lehner's solid in net, and the team comes out with the momentum they were showing near the end of Sunday's game against the Stars, will this be the Tuesday night in Columbus everyone remembers as the one that turned the Senators' season around? Let's find out!
I don't know much about Columbus, but I do know the Senators must not be bothered by that mile-high Columbus air as they come out firing in the first, controlling zone entries and forcing Jackets backup goalie Curtis McElhinney to work harder than he ever worked during Ottawa Senators practice. As the game settles down, Matt Kassian looks to fire the Senators back up by scrapping with Jared Boll; the fight is called a draw after neither man goes down, forcing the teams to caucus at centre ice to determine who's supposed to have the momentum at this point.
After a coin flip, it turns out it's the Blue Jackets! Before long, Columbus is generating offensive pressure in the Senators' zone thanks in part to a couple Senators penalties, with only save-after-ridiculous-save by Robin Lehner keeping Ottawa in the game. Convinced this is a repeat, Sens fans switch over to their PVRs and cue up that Duck Dynasty marathon they've been saving.
But this is not a repeat! With five to go in the first, Erik Karlsson walks in a 1-on-4 from centre ice and wires a wrist shot from behind the dot over McElhinney's shoulder to make it 1-0 Senators. "Come on," says McElhinney. "He's holding the turbo button down." Karlsson is oblivious, rapidly raising and lowering his arms in unison with teammates at the blue line.
|"Just how we drew it up. Why is this whiteboard moving?"|
With four seconds to go in the period, Clarke MacArthur pots his second of the year to make it 2-0 Senators. "A . . . second goal?" MacArthur whispers. "Anything is possible." Look out, Eastern Conference!
Within the first minute of the second period, Mark Borowiecki, who's acquitted himself nicely since his callup by playing a simple, defensive game, drops Derek MacKenzie after a quick scrap following a hit along the boards. "Not fair," says Kassian from the bench, "you're doing two things." The momentum is so palpable that the Blue Jackets go right back to pelting Robin Lehner like he's sitting on top of a dunk tank.
Although Columbus is clearly the stronger team for most of the second, no goals are scored in the period. Rather than describe their chances in detail, I'm just going to go to my notebook, where I scrawled the following descriptions of Robin Lehner's saves:
- off his blocker, off his pads;
- on his knees, on his back;
- off his mask, off his stick;
- off his shoulders, off his hips;
- in a box, in the crease;
- with a fox, in a tree;
- he will save shots here and there;
- he will save shots anywhere.
|"Keep that garbage outta my crease."|
Is a 2-0 lead the most dangerous in hockey? Of course not. Do the Senators give up their 2-0 lead three minutes into the third? Of course they do, as R.J. Umberger scores from his knees in the middle of a crowd of Senators defensemen in front of the net. Lehner is furious, and no Senator makes eye contact with him on their way back to the bench.
While the Umberger goal would appear to set the stage for another third period collapse, reigning Jack Adams winner Paul MacLean draws up an unconventional "Don't Fall Apart in the Third Again" strategy, and the Senators hang in until, with six to go, Chris Neil (!) blasts a centering drop-pass from Jason Spezza past McElhinney. But before you can type the hashtag #grit, Neil is already looking for a fight partner to get the stink of goal off him, in this case Dalton Prout. There's no point trying to understand Chris Neil; he's elemental, like a grizzly bear, or the tides. 3-1 Senators.
After the Blue Jackets pull McElhinney with a minute to go, this happens:
|You owe me a 10-second Karlsson.|
The Blue Jackets are the kind of middling team that good teams put away, and the Senators did that tonight, coming out strong for once. Robin Lehner as usual was excellent, which means Craig Anderson is probably at home right now nervously rubbing his neck under a pile of heating pads. And Sens fans? One win is great, but two wins is momentum. So who's up next - oh, the Habs? Momentum, here we come.