The best way to shut anyone up—the best comeback for literally anything critical anyone is saying about your team—is to score a whole bunch of goals. The Senators, very accurately derided as a “boring” team to watch thanks to their neutral-zone-coagulating defense and a drowsy transition game, exploded for four goals in the first 13 minutes of a 5-1 Game 3 win. And before we go any further, let’s stipulate that being two games from the Stanley Cup Finals is way more important than blowing the roof off the building.
Of course, you get closer to both goals when you score 48 seconds into the game, as Mike Hoffman did:
A little under 10 minutes later, the real barrage began with a pinball goal that bounced off of two or three Penguins before finding the net.
And then it was Derick Brassard and Zack Smith with goals 24 seconds apart to functionally finish this game and chase Marc-Andre Fleury.
That’s right around when the Senators’ Twitter account started chirping, and well-deserved too:
(Of course, tweeting a big game didn’t immediately work out so well the last time the Sens’ account got ahead of itself. But it’s a month later and they’re up 2-1 in the ECF, so maybe it worked out fine.)
(Fine, one more parenthetical. The game was still boring, you know. We all turned it off 13 minutes in.)
So here’s where we try to identify exactly what’s meant when we call the Senators “boring.” It’s not just about scoring; in the playoffs, Ottawa has scored 2.73 goals per game, fewest of the teams left alive but barely distinguishable from Nashville’s 2.77. It’s not even about scoring opportunities; the Sens have more shots on goal per game, and more SOG allowed per game, than the Predators, and no one’s out here calling Nashville a boring team to watch.
Let’s be clear with this: What’s “boring” is a lack of odd-man rushes at either end of the ice. The most exciting plays in hockey are full-speed rushes, scoring chances that you can see developing and move to the edge of your seat for, that end with nifty helpers and roaring goals, or with highlight-reel saves. The Senators don’t have many of those, but they don’t allow many either.
“If we played a run-and-gun game that maybe some people would rather watch, we probably wouldn’t be here,” Mike Hoffman said. “So we use our assets and that’s what works.”
Guy Boucher’s defensive system, call it the Kanata Wall or the 1-3-1, is a less severe version of the neutral-zone trap perfected by the ‘90s Devils and adopted by most of the rest of the league as the only logical reaction to its success. In the offensive zone, it takes the form of a defenseman leaping up to keep the puck in—go back and watch Erik Karlsson, the master of this, preserve the play that led to Brassard’s goal. On defense, it means one forechecker, one defenseman back, and the rest of the Senators cutting off passing lanes and sludging up the center of the ice, forcing play to the outside and all but requiring opponents to dump and chase.
This works, obviously. The Senators aren’t as fast or as offensively minded as many of the teams they face, so they level the playing field by taking a north-south game out of play for everyone. Look at all four goals above—they all take place entirely in the offensive zone, with no rushes to speak of. Ottawa is more than content to trade what are basically discrete offensive possessions at each end. It’s not an exact parallel, but in basketball you’d call it a halfcourt game. It’s slower, more reliant on strategy and set plays, and it’s less fun to watch—but as Boucher and the Sens have figured out with experience, it’s the game they’re best equipped to play and most likely to win. Why would any team ever not play to its own strengths and neutralize its opponents’?
And, to their reflexively defensive fans: Why would you ever give the slightest shit if national ratings are bad, or if I, some rando on the internet, find their games a little less fun to watch. Enjoy winning, buttheads. Just don’t win so much that any other team thinks it’s a good idea to copy you.