Sens winger Mike Hoffman celebrates his third period, game-winning goal with teammate Patrick Wiercioch in the third period of Game 4 of Montreal's first-round series against Ottawa Wednesday. (Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Ottawa Senators were facing elimination Wednesday against Montreal, but got a stellar performance from goalie Craig Anderson and a clutch goal from Mike Hoffman to pull out a 1-0 win and make the series 3-1 in favor of the Canadiens. The Sens played a near-perfect game, but they'll probably need to do that every game to beat Carey Price & Co.
With a mountainous task before them heading into Game 4 of their first-round playoff showdown against Montreal, the Ottawa Senators understood there was no room for error against a Canadiens team that made the most of its chances to go up 3-0 in the series. And Wednesday night at Canadian Tire Centre, that's just what the Sens did, putting a lid on Montreal's offense, getting a terrific showing from veteran goalie Craig Anderson, and shutting out the Habs 1-0 to stave off elimination for at least one more game. They were as next-to-flawless as it gets, and that's the good news. They're capable of putting together a complete and airtight 60 minutes of post-season hockey.
The not-so-good news? They're probably going to have to be just as mistake-free the rest of the series if they're to win it, because it wasn't as if the Canadiens were that far off in Game 4, either. Montreal didn't have their best game, but they're also able to play the perfect game the Sens played against them Wednesday. And that just has to happen once in the next three games to send Ottawa home for the summer.
With due respect to first-year netminding sensation Andrew "The Hamburlgar" Hammond, it's no coincidence removing him and inserting Anderson in net has led to Ottawa allowing just two goals in the last two games of this series after surrendering seven in the first two. Anderson has brought a calm to the Senators' defensive zone and has stopped 61 of 63 shots in Games 3 and 4, including 25 Wednesday for his third career playoff shutout. He's had some hot streaks in the past, so it's not at all out of the question to envision him giving Canadiens superstar Carey Price a run for his money and carrying the Senators back into the series.
But let's be real here – if Ottawa has to pin all their hopes on Anderson, it's going to be over for the Sens sooner than later. They need the whole roster acting in unison as a giant human battering ram if they're going to push through the wall Price puts up in Montreal's net every night. They need guys like 22-year-old center Jean-Gabriel Pageau dominating in the faceoff circle the way he did in Game 4, winning nine of 14 draws (including six of eight in the defensive zone). They need blueliner Marc Methot to give them what he gave them Wednesday: 25:23 of stellar ice time (including 3:57 on the penalty kill) and a game-high six hits. And they needed that clutch goal from Mike Hoffman, who played just 12:54, yet registered as many shots (four) as any of his teammates.
The Canadiens did have some excellent scoring opportunities – most notably, Brandon Prust's shorthanded breakaway in the second frame – but the Senators cut down on Montreal's shot attempts in every period (from 11 in the first, to 10 in the second, and just seven in the third) while increasing their own shot count after every 20-minute interval. That's the sign of a disciplined team the Habs can't take lightly at this point. Ottawa has found its groove with Anderson, and the memory of their stirring run to the playoffs isn't so faded that they stopped believing in themselves after going down 3-0. Being swept would have been an indignity to the great character the Sens have shown, and now that they understand the Canadiens can be beaten, they've got something to build on.
That said, Game 5 is set for Friday back in Montreal, meaning the Senators will have that much tougher a job of avoiding elimination. They've made an art out of obliterating expectations this season, and there's enough inspiration around the organization to keep them focused, but they're probably going to need every last bit of it wrenched from every part of every player to defeat the Habs three more times. Price alone is reason enough to be cynical of Ottawa's odds of success, but Game 4 demonstrated there is a possibility, remote though it may be, of it occurring.
So far this year, some remote possibilities have gotten the Ottawa Senators to some magical places. So you never know.