Throwback Thursday: 2017 Conference Finals Game 7

Ottawa’s improbable run to within one goal of the Stanley Cup Final still pains fans

Look, I know there are probably games Sens fans would rather look back on longingly, maybe ones where they won, or at the very least didn’t have their hearts ripped out of their chests, then shoved back down their throats, then ripped out of their chest, and so on. But all great stories have an end, so even if the end was disappointing, it’s still worth remembering. If anything, the pain felt three years ago may have been dulled as the team began what can only be described as a full-on tailspin.

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Before we dive into the game though, we have to get a feel for the narratives surrounding the team at the time. The team had a fairly successful regular season, finishing second in the Atlantic with 98 points. The point total doesn’t tell the whole story though, as many pointed out the team’s underlying numbers were less than stellar. Even without diving into any advanced stats though there were definitely some red flags. The team had a negative goal differential, with 212 goals scored and 214 allowed, and were the only playoff team in 2017 with that dubious distinction. While they had three more points than their first-round opponent the Bruins, Boston tied Ottawa with 44 wins with the Sens beating them out 10 to 7 in overtime losses. The team also had the advantage of being in the Atlantic division which, thanks to a struggling Tampa Bay team and a Boston squad whose window was seemingly shutting, was comfortably the worst in the league. While they were the two seed in the division, they actually only ranked sixth in the Eastern Conference.

But up until this point, the Sens had found a way to knock off both the Bruins and Rangers and were playing the Penguins tough six games. Even though the team still wasn’t playing like a Stanley Cup champion, their underlying numbers continued to be poor and they were helped by a 6-1 overtime record to this point, they were still right in the mix with only three teams left standing. The Sens improbable run had started to grow on people, as even The Athletic’s analytics guru Dom Luszczyszyn jumped firmly on the bandwagon.

With Nashville waiting, the entire hockey world tuned in to see if Erik Karlsson and his group of merry men could dethrone the defending champions, and the two teams delivered a classic.

The Sens were able to hold Pittsburgh in check in a scoreless first period, only allowing eight shots on goal. While they only managed seven themselves, this was a perfect example of the kind of trapping, suffocating defensive system Guy Boucher had found so much success within his first season with the team.

Midway through the second period though, Pittsburgh caught Marc Methot pinching and sent Conor Sheary and Chris Kunitz on a two-on-one against Karlsson.

Karlsson tried to play the pass but Kunitz was able to quickly corral the puck from Sheary and beat Craig Anderson for the first goal of the game. But before Penguins fans had even stopped cheering Karlsson, as he so often did in that playoff run and throughout his entire Sens career, took control of the play, carrying the puck up ice, and finding Mark Stone in open space. Stone made no mistake and beat Matt Murray’s high glove side. The two goals in 20 seconds weren’t a sign of things to come as neither team found the back of the net for the rest of the period, so the teams went into the second intermission tied.

After neither team could score in the first half of the third period, Dion Phaneuf found himself in a foot race with former Leafs teammate Phil Kessel. Phaneuf knew he was no match for the Pens sniper so he tried to rub him out along the boards but ended up taking a penalty for his troubles. On the powerplay, Justin Schultz gave the Penguins the lead on a screened shot that hit the post and went in. The screen was provided by Chris Kunitz, a player who I’m sure is totally unimportant and you probably don’t need to remember.

So a team that had struggled to score all season was down 2-1 late in the third period to the defending champions, it felt like the season was over. It was a valiant effort, but it was clearly time for the Sens to step aside and let the Penguins and Predators duke it out for the Cup. Erik Karlsson had other ideas. Less than three minutes later, the seemingly un-human captain wound up from the point and let loose a cannon that beat Matt Murray. The puck didn’t actually go in, but it rang off the post and right to Ryan Dzingel who batted it in to tie the game with just over five minutes to go. The last few minutes saw Pittsburgh put their foot on the gas and Ottawa scramble to get to the intermission, with Craig Anderson standing on his head a couple of times to force overtime.

So now it was official, the next goal moved on to the Stanley Cup Finals. Unfortunately for Ottawa, the intermission didn’t seem to do them much good as Pittsburgh continued to pour it on in overtime, outshooting the Sens 14-6, a total that doesn’t even include a partial break in which Phil Kessel fired the puck wide. But either by the grace of God or the grace of Craig Anderson, the puck stayed out of Ottawa’s net, which meant the teams would need a second overtime to decide the Eastern Conference champion.

Alright look, I know you probably don’t want to watch this clip. I didn’t want to watch it either, but I did because I am A Professional, but you of course have no such obligation. So feel free to skip by it, or even just close your computer or turn off your phone and go about your day, completely unbothered by the contents of the video below. You’ve already clicked on this piece, what do I care if you read the last few paragraphs? I can write whatever I want. Peaches, Oklahoma, former Blue Jays pitcher Jo-Jo Reyes. See?

Man that one hurt. Look how close Viktor Stalberg was to breaking it up! He could’ve even taken it the other way for a scoring chance! As soon as that puck found a Penguins stick, everyone watching knew what was about to happen, but the goal still didn’t need to be so painful. The way Anderson just kind of sits there after the puck beats him sums up how we all felt. Everyone knew the Sens were in above their heads against a team like Pittsburgh, but we were there so we might as well win. Instead, reality decided to come crashing down and just a few months later it was clear that, even after adding Matt Duchene, the team’s window was gone.

Ever since Chris Kunitz maliciously and intentionally caused severe emotional trauma to an entire city did his job and scored a goal for his team, the Sens have been flailing as they try to build their next contender. While the future looks brighter today than it did a year or so ago, there are still numerous doubts surrounding the team on and off the ice. That has turned many fans off, and those who have stuck with the team still often feel a sense of futility. But even though it was painful in the end, 2017 was one hell of a time to be a Sens fan. Wouldn’t it be nice to feel like that again?