The Ottawa Senators came into their first playoff round against the Boston Bruins with home ice advantage, but without the odds in their favor.
The Senators finished the regular season with three extra points on Boston, but all three came by virtue of overtime or shootout losses. Both Ottawa and Boston finished the year with 44 wins, but the Bruins earned 42 of those in regulation or overtime while the Senators collected just 38 of those victories.
The Senators finished the regular season with a minus-2 goal differential, the ninth-worst penalty kill in the league to go with a middle-of-the-pack power play, and a sub-50 Corsi For percentage at even strength. In comparison, Boston had a plus-22 goal differential, the league’s best penalty kill to go with the seventh-best power play, and the second-best even strength Corsi For percentage in the league.
Poor shooting percentages for Boston and a decent save percentage for Ottawa evened things out a bit, but you would have been hard pressed to find an analyst who thought they were the stronger club.
Now, they’re sitting on a 3-1 lead against the Bruins, and heading back to home ice to potentially finish the series off.
While the Bruins were the possession gods in the regular season, the Senators have been relentless in the postseason. They’ve managed to turn a series in Boston’s favor into an evenly-matched fight.
All four games so far have been one-goal matches. Three of the four have gone to extra minutes, and the fourth saw just one goal scored.
For the Senators, Bobby Ryan has been excellent, as has Erik Karlsson.
But the Bruins bring excellence of their own in the forms of Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron — who sit at the top of the possession charts game after game — and Charlie MacAvoy has been quietly impressive in his first-ever NHL games.
The true tipping point in the series could be goaltending. And Craig Anderson made sure it was Wednesday night.
Anderson faced just 22 shots on the night from the Bruins, but turned away a handful of key high-danger opportunities in order to earn a shutout and help his team take home their third win.
Neither goaltender had been particularly spectacular leading up to Wednesday’s game. Both Rask and Anderson had sat below a 0.900 save percentage on the series, allowing three goals apiece in regulation in the third game and giving up some absolute must-save goals to keep the matches unpredictable.
It’s been an unpredictable year for Anderson all around, of course.
The veteran starter has been in and out of the lineup for the Senators all year, sitting out periods of time on personal leave to be with his wife Nicholle as she battles cancer.
Up to the playoffs, his numbers barely showed that.
If anything, the only counting category that looked a bit unusual was the number of games played. His save percentage, shutouts, and wins all told the tale of a brick wall; while he didn’t quite hit Vezina territory, he was clearly worthy of the Masterton nomination he earned from the Senators.
His first few games of the postseason were only salvageable because Rask was equally unimpressive, though. Had he been facing the Tuukka Rask that fans expect to see, the Bruins could have easily swept the series.
Maybe it was playing to his opponent, maybe both goaltenders just turned things on in the same game – but in a contest where Rask’s only allowed tally was a bit of a fluke from Bobby Ryan, Anderson matched that with a shutout of his own.
The Bruins didn’t help themselves, of course.
Before the league introduced the coach’s challenge, this game would have gone to extra minutes.
The Bruins actually found the back of the net first in the game, with rookie Noel Acciari scoring his second career NHL playoff goal in the second period to put the home team up by one. A challenge by Ottawa ruled the goal was the result of an offside play, though, so the score went back to nil; the Bruins wouldn’t get another one past Anderson, and the game would fall to the visiting roster.
Assuming Rask is warmed up and ready to go, Ottawa fans shouldn’t expect any more poor performances from the Boston starter. His uncharacteristically sloppy tracking and post work in the early games were just part of what earned the Senators their three wins on the series.
The lineups have been similarly matched in opportunities. The Senators have blocked more shots from reaching their own net, but shot attempts from both sides have shown that the series is between two clubs with similar chances to win.
That means that, if Rask is back in his normal form, Anderson is the tipping point.
There’s no clear way of knowing if he’ll be up to that task. If Game 4 was any indication, though, he and the Senators will be just fine. Now, they could be on their way to the second round as early as Friday.