For the fourth time in the last five years, the Ottawa Senators playoff hopes have ended at the hands of the Leaf Nation. Tuesday nights loss a most dis-heartening display, defensive breakdowns, shaky goaltending and a guy named Belfour all combined to once again bring the Senators playoff season to an early end.
Patrick Lalime had a horrible first period, giving up three goals before the Zamboni made its first trip around the rink. For Ottawa it was poor play in their own end that spelled the end, giveaways at the blue line and an inability to beat the Leafs for the puck in their own end, gave Toronto scoring opportunities and they took advantage of them with a vengeance.
The Sens were off their game Tuesday, they got away from the pounding they had been giving the Leafs for most of the series. Instead, they were almost timid at times, afraid to take the play into the corners and come out with the puck. The Leafs first goal was courtesy of the hard work of Tie Domi, who pressured the Sens in their own end, taking the puck away and centering it to Chad Kilger who quickly found the net. A 1-0 lead for the Leafs and the folks at the ACC started to believe.
While the Sens continued to battle back in the first, once again Ed Belfour shut the door, the Leaf goaltender made save after save to keep the Sens off the board and the frustration level started to peak for the Sens. Joe Nieuwendyk picked up the slack for his team with two goals in the first that sent the Senators reeling towards the end of the period. His first goal was a 45 foot shot that somehow eluded Patrick Lalime and fluttered into the Sens net, the Leafs found themselves up by 2. Later in the first as time was winding down towards the first intermission, Nieuwendyk again found the mark, another soft goal that got by Lalime with only 20 seconds left in the first. Lalime seemed to wilt in the net as the throng in the Air Canada Centre saluted their heroes. As the catastrophe know as the first period ended, so did Patrick Lalime’s time in the Ottawa net.
As period two began Martin Prusek was in the Sens goal, and the strategy appeared to pay off at the start, Ottawa gaining a quick goal to pull within two of the Leafs. The rest of the game featured Ottawa getting their usual high amount of shots on net and the usual response of Belfour of save after save. Out shooting Toronto 37-26 in game seven they once again sat and shook their heads in amazement at the quality of the game Belfour brought to the series.
Once again the regular season stats go for nothing, the high expectations of September give way to the cold dark reality of April, and the Sens season is done.
Give full credit to a Toronto team that held on by the skin of its teeth for the early games in this series. Battered and missing key players such as Sundin and Nolan, the walking wounded of the Leafs kept the pace. Outplayed and out shot for the duration they found a way to win. Whether it was Tie Domi having a career series, Joe Nieuwendyk taking his battered old body down the ice for one more successful shift, or the spectacular performance of Belfour these Leafs just held on until they outlasted the Sens.
Whatever the hold they have over these Senators it’s a real tangible one, there is no shaking the feeling of disappointment that surrounds this Ottawa team now. Another off season of questions awaits, how a talented squad like this could go so flat when the time to step up came will be the grist for off ice debate for months. Expected by many to not only challenge for the Stanley Cup but strongly thought of as a favorite to win it, they instead must sit back and dwell on what should have been.
Toronto's reward for their grit and determination of game seven, is the chance to suit up and do it all again on Thursday night. They take Wednesday to rest their bones, celebrate a hard fought victory and begin to study how to approach another old nemesis the Philadelphia Flyers. With the will to win as shown in the first series, they face a Flyer team with its own ghosts to be exorcised. Nothing suits the Leafs better than facing a team desperate to prove its worth. They knocked off one in this series; don’t put a repeat performance beyond them for the next.
In another series that may come down to goaltending, the edge is most definitely with the Eagle. He may single-handedly will this team into the Stanley Cup finals, and if the first series is any indication a Vezina trophy is all but his for the taking. All hail Eddie, Master of all he surveys!