PITTSBURGH — By his own estimate, it took Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan a full 82 games to adjust to first-year coach Guy Boucher’s system.
Consider the forward all caught up. The rest of the consistently surprising Senators, too.
Ryan broke in alone on Marc-Andre Fleury and deked the Pittsburgh goalie before flipping a backhand into the open net 4:59 into overtime to give Ottawa a 2-1 victory Saturday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
“I knew at some point those pucks I’d been chasing all year long, they were going to come,” Ryan said after picking up his fifth goal of the playoffs. “You just want to redeem yourself. You let your teammates down (during the regular season). Now I’m getting to redeem myself a little bit. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
The Senators improved to 6-1 when pushed beyond regulation during the postseason to give them early control of the best-of-seven series against the defending Stanley Cup champions, a matchup few outside of the guys in the red, white and black jerseys gave them a shot of winning.
Not that it seems to bother Ottawa. One game in and the Senators have already done to the Penguins what Washington and Columbus could not: grab control of the series.
“There’s a lot of things to like but it’s just one game,” Boucher said. “We won’t get too excited.”
Boucher hasn’t backed away from the underdog role. If anything, he’s embraced it. A year ago the Senators missed the playoffs while the Penguins sprinted to the franchise’s Cup. Now Ottawa finds itself on equal footing and hardly appeared intimidated by the stage. Ryan assisted on Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s first-period goal, Craig Anderson made 27 saves and the Senators turned away five Pittsburgh power plays.
Evgeni Malkin’s goal late in the third period forced the extra period, but Pittsburgh struggled to generate any consistent pressure on Anderson. The problem wasn’t Ottawa’s neutral zone trap designed to slow teams down but a decided lack of aggression once Malkin, captain Sidney Crosby and company crossed the Senators’ blue line.
“We’re looking for that next play instead of putting pucks at the net,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said.
The Penguins only managed 17 shots in five-on-five situations, compared to 32 by Ottawa. Pittsburgh also gave it away 17 times, two of which led to goals.
“We understand, they wait,” Malkin said. “They need one chance, two-on-one or three-on-two to score.”
The Penguins only had 72 hours to recharge following a draining seven-game series against Washington. While Pittsburgh insisted it would have no problem hitting reset with a spot in the Stanley Cup finals on the line, there was a dip in intensity both on the ice and in the stands.
For long stretches, it felt like the game could have been played in mid-December instead of mid-May, which was just fine by Ottawa.
The Penguins didn’t lack for opportunities to jump on the Senators but four first-period power plays – including 45 seconds of a 5-on-3 – went nowhere. Ron Hainsey hit the crossbar early and Patric Hornqvist dinged the left post but that’s as close as Pittsburgh would get to slipping one by Anderson.
“There were some good looks there,” said Crosby, who had just two shots in 23:32 of ice time. “They’re not going to give you anything but we worked hard to get our chances and we’ve got to bury them when we get them.”
The Senators focused not on creating extended pressure on Fleury but instead taking advantage of Pittsburgh’s mistakes. The breakthrough came 14:32 into the first when Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin left a blind drop pass behind his net that Ryan intercepted and slipped to Pageau in the right circle. The puck zipped over Fleury’s glove and suddenly Ottawa had the lead.
It appeared it would be enough to put Pittsburgh away in regulation until Malkin redirected a Chris Kunitz shot between Anderson’s legs with 5:35 left in the third.
No matter. The Senators did what they’ve done repeatedly during their surprising run to the NHL’s final four: they found a way.
“Our players are really good at not fearing the outcome, and we play the way we play,” Boucher said. “Whether it’s overtime or third period or we’re leading or we’re trailing. We just really keep the same approach. So it’s been healthy for us.”
NOTES: Malkin moved past Jaromir Jagr and into third-place on Pittsburgh’s career playoff scoring list with 148 points. … Ottawa’s Alexandre Burrows poked the puck out of Fleury’s glove and into the net just past the midway point but the referees had blown the play dead. The call was upheld upon review. … Pageau’s eight goals are the second-most by a Senators player during a single postseason. Daniel Alfredsson scored 14 while leading Ottawa to the Cup finals in 2007. … Fleury finished with 33 saves.