Last night’s game represented something surreal for Senators fans, or at least for this one. For years Ottawa was the skilled team who seemed to crumple in the playoffs against grinders, the team who couldn’t create that sense of family that you sensed other teams built around. In a sense, Ottawa has rarely seemed like a team that liked each other any more than your average group of co-workers.
So to hear Chris Neil talk about how this team is a family, and how Carkner’s mugging of Boyle (in response to Boyle’s mugging of Karlsson) meant the world to the room, is a conflict for a fan like me. It’s bittersweet. It’s one of those moments that justifies all of the loud-mouthed analysts and square-headed bullies who insist that this game is best played by a bunch of good ol’ Canadian boys engaging in the pro sports equivalent of a bar fight.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy the occasional fight, though most of the time I use them as an opportunity to check the out-of-town scoreboard. But the degree to which these playoffs have turned into pure spectacle is both entertaining and thoroughly weird. Personally, I’ve spent the entire season speculating on dry rebuilding models and sustainable franchises. I assume that there are systems used to build hockey teams that are complex and nuanced, that this sport isn’t really a Good Ol’ Boys network of old school mentalities and enforcers in suits. But games like last night’s seem to imply otherwise. Maybe the best way to be competitive really is to goon it up.
During Don Cherry’s first intermission rant, he went into an incoherent string of his usual cliches. I have no idea what his point was, but at one point he just started saying “all these Swedes and Finns in their visors.” I suppose his point was that at the end of the day it was Matt Carkner, he of Winchester, ON, drafted 58th overall way back in 1999, and making close to league minimum, that supposedly made the difference. Cherry’s cache in the hockey community was enforced.
Never mind that Ottawa ended up having to kill off a five minute major, something that just as well might have resulted in the game being out of reach before the first period was half over. But that’s not the narrative. The story that sticks is that Ottawa responded, took control of the series, and are heading back to Ottawa with the split and all the momentum on their side. That Chris Neil scored the OT winner, and that Jason Spezza looks positively lost out there, only seems appropriate given the romance accorded this Ottawa team’s newfound emphasis on getting wacky.
So, yeah: strange times for Sens fans. Those of us who remember the stacked, skilled teams of yesteryear shitting the bed against vastly inferior Leafs teams look at the result of last year and can’t help but think we’ve lost some bit of the respectability we once enjoyed. We just might win more games as a result.