Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Ottawa got to the conference finals by playing a methodical, defensive style that is not pleasing to watch, but it works for them.
The Ottawa Senators are that person driving 44 miles per hour on the highway in the left lane. When Reservoir Dogs is inevitably rebooted, instead of cutting off an ear, Michael Madsen will torture the cop by making him watch a Senators game. The phrase “watching grass grow” will be replaced by “pulling a Guy Boucher.”
The first two games of the Eastern Conference finals between the Senators and the Pittsburgh Penguins could cure insomnia. You should not watch these games while operating heavy machinery. If Senators hockey were a sleeping pill, you would not be able to purchase it without a prescription from your doctor.
The Senators have put more hockey fans to sleep than an NBCSN intermission show. They have caused more casual observers to look away in horror than that nude statue of Donald Trump. They’ve spent more time counter-punching than Muhammad Ali in Zaire and more time on their heels than a stripper working a double shift.
Senators hockey is more painful to watch than your parents having sex.
But you know what?
It works for the Senators. It works really, really well, and they should continue with it even though it triggers your gag reflex three times per contest.
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Sure, when you watch a Senators game, part of you wants to call your loved ones and say goodbye because you think you’re dying, but this 1-3-1 or 1-4 or Remove Your Will To Live system Boucher employs gives the Senators their best chance to win against more talented teams. It worked in the first round. It worked in the second round. And through two games against the Penguins, it’s got them in a 1-1 series tie.
That’s all that matters to the Senators and their fans. Would you love to grab Boucher by his collar and shake him while screaming about how he’s destroying hockey and impeding the NHL’s ability to attract new fans at a time when the most people are watching the sport? Do you want to berate him about his team not having a shot on goal for basically the entire third period of Game 2?
But this is the only way the Senators can beat the Penguins four times out of seven games. Absorb the beating, wait for the turnover in the middle of the ice, go the other way, score a goal, let Craig Anderson see and stop everything that doesn’t get blocked. When you lose 1-0 and spend nearly an entire period of a scoreless game in your zone, it looks bad, but when you protect a lead on your way to a win in regulation or overtime? Well, it still looks bad, but at least you won.
Ask a Senators fan how they feel about watching this system and “boring” is one of the last words they’ll use to describe it. That’s because the Senators are winning, and that’s all Senators fans care about. If Boucher decided that the Senators’ best chance at winning was playing literal keep-away with the puck for two periods before trying to score in the third, and it worked, Senators fans would wear “KEEP-AWAY” T-shirts to every game.
The NHL is a niche sport, and the Senators are satisfying their niche with a conference finals appearance. But to get any other hockey fan to commit two hours to a game that doesn’t involve their favorite team, you have to offer them something more than a stoppage every 45 seconds because someone went offside.
The Senators are the shitty videos your friends post of their kids to Facebook; you may think it’s great that your kid is eating spaghetti or playing a traffic light in an elementary school production of The Fast & The Furious, but nobody else cares.
At the very least, the NHL should get Unisom to sponsor all remaining Senators games. Or a mattress company. Get creative with a hockey team that is the athletic manifestation of narcolepsy. Monetize the pain.
What can the NHL do to prevent teams from playing this way? Nothing. The Senators are the only team using this style, and quite frankly it’s a miracle they’ve gotten this far. It’s a transition season for the NHL, with its superpowers dropping like flies and the Penguins handicapped by the absence of Kris Letang, which is making the Senators’ comforter-and-warm-milk defensive strategy that much more effective. It’s hardly the start of a trend that will sink the league.
This is a copycat league, but no team in its right mind will look at the Senators’ success and think, Yes, this is what we need to do now. Nobody wants to return to the hockey of the 1990s. The only thing from 90s hockey that’s on the ice today is Jaromir Jagr, and that’s all we need.
Boucher isn’t going to change, and nor should he. This is our reality for the next three, four, five, or, if the Senators reach the Stanley Cup Final, possibly 12 games. Roll up your rim on that Tim Hortons coffee, pop open that bottle of Jolt, and keep that adrenaline needle nearby, because the Senators are trying to become the first team to intentionally sleepwalk to a Stanley Cup.