‘Top guns’, not Chris Neil, push Sens to brink of Eastern Conference final

'Top guns', not Chris Neil, spur Sens rally

OTTAWA — According to post-game lore, Chris Neil’s feisty presence provided the spark that breathed new life into the Senators’ playoff chances. But in reality it was Ottawa’s best players who pushed the club to within one win of a long-awaited Eastern Conference final berth.

“Our top guns definitely took the bull by the horns and contributed in all kinds of ways,” head coach Guy Boucher said.

Start with Erik Karlsson, the team captain who exited Game 4 after 40 minutes in obvious discomfort and played the first round with two hairline fractures in his left foot. The 26-year-old posted three assists and 12 shot attempts while leading all players with more than 31 minutes in the Senators’ 5-4 overtime win Game 5.

Ottawa had control of the puck 68 per cent of the time at even-strength when he was on the ice.

Karlsson played all but one minute and two seconds of the final six and a half minutes of regulation, meanwhile, firing the cross-ice feed which eventually led to Derick Brassard’s game-tying goal with 86 ticks left. He then fired the bullet pass out of the defensive zone which led to Kyle Turris’ game-winner.

The Swede has a team-leading 11 points in 11 games this spring.

Boucher thought the team’s decision to hold Karlsson out for the third period of a 4-1 loss two nights earlier had paid off. Not only did Karlsson save his energy, but his injury wasn’t allowed to get worse in an obvious defeat.

Then there was Turris.

His shot between Henrik Lundqvist’s pads capped the victory six-plus minutes into overtime. The B.C. native also dished out nine hits in almost 25 minutes (tops among forwards), fired nine attempts on goal and won 65 per cent of his 23 draws. He finished with a puck possession mark of 57 per cent despite matching up most against Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh.

“I guess that was our horse tonight,” Boucher said with a nod to the Kentucky Derby. “Definitely somebody who came out with the max character and pushback that we can expect from him.”

Boucher also lauded the Game 5 performance of Mark Stone, who cut the Rangers 2-0 first period lead in half, as well as Brassard, a “gamer” who’s up to nine points in the post-season.

The former Rangers centre batted Clarke MacArthur’s rebound attempt off a number in bodies in front before it finally beat Lundqvist to tie the game at four.

“We’ve been talking about all the rebounds with Lundqvist — everything high it’s coming in front,” said Brassard, the Sens extra attacker in the waning moments of regulation. “I was just coming from the bench with some speed and I just went in the slot there and I just batted it out of the air and I got lucky.”

Stone had maybe his most effective game (69 per cent possession) of a relatively quiet post-season which has seen him post only four points. He pointed to his Game 5 goal as a measure of continued learning that “scoring in the playoffs is tough.”

He had to outmuscle Dan Girardi for a rebound that just trickled across the goal-line. All three of his career playoff goals (19 games) have come this spring.

“If you’re not getting to those nitty-gritty areas you’re not going to score,” said Stone, who’s scored at least 22 goals in each of the past three seasons. 

Neil, a team legend who’s been with the club since 2001, was playing for the first time in these playoffs and second time in more than two months. He got credit for sparking the Sens because of his urgent defence of Dion Phaneuf following a hit from Tanner Glass early in the second period.

But it was Karlsson that actually ignited the rally which led to Ottawa’s first lead. He pushed the puck up from the defensive zone and dropped to MacArthur who found Mike Hoffman — he of 26 goals during the regular season — for the goal which knotted the game at two.

Tom Pyatt put the Sens in front 33 seconds later.

Neil, meanwhile, earned a two-minute infraction for roughing in the mix-up with Glass as well as a 10-minute misconduct. He didn’t play again after that and finished with two minutes and 26 seconds of ice-time — a game-low.

His effect, beyond inspiration, was negligible. 

In the end, it was the best Ottawa had to offer which pushed it to the brink of a first Eastern Conference final appearance since 2007.

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press

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