Sens: We throw blan­kets over you

Sen­a­tors bot­tling up Crosby, high-pow­ered Pens with ag­gra­vat­ing ap­proach

Cape Breton Post - - Sports - BY JONAS SIEGEL

Phil Kes­sel fired the puck hard into the side­boards dur­ing a lull in Pen­guins prac­tice at the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa, then bent to one knee and seemed to stew in his own frus­tra­tion.

Kes­sel had the goal which de­liv­ered Pitts­burgh their first and only win so far in the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nal — they trail 2-1 in the best-of-seven se­ries — but gen­er­ally, he and the Pen­guins have been ag­gra­vated by the per­sis­tent de­fen­sive ef­forts of the Ot­tawa Sen­a­tors. The high­est-scor­ing team dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, the Pens have scored only three times through three games head­ing into Game 4 tonight.

“I know that we have what it takes,” head coach Mike Sul­li­van in­sisted af­ter prac­tice on Thurs­day.

A day af­ter his team was thrashed 5-1 in Game 3, Sul­li­van seemed in­tent on try­ing to build con­fi­dence and lighten the mood around a team chas­ing a sec­ond straight Stan­ley Cup. He opened prac­tice with some light­hearted drills which saw play­ers flash­ing rare grins as they tried to keep pucks away from one an­other.

So far their ex­pe­ri­ence against Canada’s only re­main­ing team has drawn mostly scowls, sighs and ag­gra­va­tion, in­clud­ing a fiery out­burst from Kes­sel on the bench dur­ing the 1-0 Game 2 win. The Sens have sim­ply sucked the life out of their at­tack with an in­tensely de­fen­sive ap­proach mir­ror­ing the one which helped them cap­ture sec­ond spot in the At­lantic di­vi­sion dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son be­fore top­ping the Bru­ins and Rangers in the open­ing two rounds.

They’ve not only kept the Pens off the score­board, but lim­ited them to just un­der 28 shots pergame — a far cry from the 33.5 Pitts­burgh av­er­aged dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son.

“It can be a frus­trat­ing sys­tem to try and get through, when we’re mak­ing you dump it all the time and you’re not able to float through the neu­tral zone with the puck, it prob­a­bly gets

wear­ing,” Sens winger Bobby Ryan said.

Ot­tawa stacks the neu­tral zone with bod­ies, em­ploy­ing the 1-3-1 sys­tem which ini­tially brought head coach Guy Boucher some recog­ni­tion (both good and bad) dur­ing his time with the Tampa Bay Light­ning. The ap­proach slows down an op­po­nent and forces them to chase down pucks in the of­fen­sive zone.

Once in the zone, the Sen­a­tors are forc­ing the Pens to the out­side. Though Pitts­burgh says oth­er­wise, dan­ger­ous scor­ing chances have been lim­ited for just about ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing Rocket Richard tro­phy win­ner Sid­ney Crosby.

Craig An­der­son has stopped 80 of the 83 shots he’s faced.

“A lot of times we throw blan­kets over you and try not to give you more than five, six feet of space to make a play,” Ryan said.

Crosby had his first point of the se­ries in Game 3, a pow­er­play marker six min­utes into the third pe­riod of a game that

was al­ready over. He con­ceded the goal was rel­a­tively mean­ing­less as far as re­liev­ing pres­sure, but ex­pressed be­lief that his team was on the cusp of break­ing through.

“The chances have been there, re­gard­less of who gets them,” said an up­beat Crosby in a cramped dress­ing room on the univer­sity cam­pus.

Crosby, Kes­sel and Ev­geni Malkin car­ried Pitts­burgh’s of­fence through the first two rounds and have com­bined to score the three measly goals against Ot­tawa. Even they haven’t been all that dan­ger­ous; Malkin — the lead­ing scorer this post-sea­son — had just a sin­gle shot in an es­pe­cially quiet Game 3.

He and Kes­sel have both been poked and prod­ded all se­ries­long by Dion Pha­neuf. The former Maple Leafs cap­tain has been par­tic­u­larly feisty against Kes­sel, his former Toronto team­mate.

Sens cap­tain Erik Karls­son and his part­ner, Marc Methot, have done an ef­fec­tive job con­tain­ing

Crosby and a ro­tat­ing cast of line­mates, in­clud­ing the ris­ing Jake Guentzel. Whether re­lated at all to the con­cus­sion he suf­fered in the sec­ond round against Wash­ing­ton, Crosby hasn’t been near as po­tent as pre­vi­ous.

He has a goal and three as­sists in the six games since he re­turned from the head in­jury.

The real strug­gle for the Pens, how­ever, is in­creas­ingly lack­ing depth beyond the stars. Last spring, the club’s strength beyond those top guys was in the mean­ing­ful con­tri­bu­tions those like Nick Bonino (18 points), Carl Hagelin (16), Pa­tric Horn­qvist (13), and Conor Sheary (10), of­fered.

That same qual­ity of depth just hasn’t been there this spring, whether be­cause of in­juries in the case of Hagelin, Horn­qvist and in­jured de­fend­ers Kris Le­tang and Justin Schultz, or sim­ple strug­gles in the case of Bonino, who has only three points in the play­offs, or Sheary, who’s yet to find the back of the net.

CP PHOTO

Ot­tawa Sen­a­tors goalie Craig An­der­son (41) makes a save as right wing Bobby Ryan (9) and Pitts­burgh Pen­guins cen­tre Sid­ney Crosby (87) bat­tle in front of the net dur­ing Game 3 of the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nal in the NHL Stan­ley Cup play­offs in Ot­tawa on Wed­nes­day.

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