They call it ugly hockey, but the winning goal was a thing of beauty – at least to Ottawa fans.
Mike Hoffman, the best pure scorer the Ottawa Senators have to offer, drifted over the Pittsburgh Penguins' blueline at the 1:34 mark of the third period, held until he felt Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray was screened and then slapped a hard shot that rang off the right goalpost and in.
Final score? A come-from-behind 2-1 victory for Ottawa over the defending Stanley Cup champions.
"I got lucky that the shot got through," said Hoffman. "I had a decent amount of time to pick my spot."
Ottawa defenceman Frederik Claesson, who had fed Hoffman the pass, had charged toward the Pittsburgh net. "I was just trying to make a little screen for him," Claesson said after.
For the Senators, the singing post meant that the Eastern Conference final remains far from over – the team that will advance to the Stanley Cup against the Nashville Predators to be decided in a Game 7 to be held Thursday back in Pittsburgh.
Coming into the match, the Senators all spoke – as fully expected when a team is facing elimination – of "desperation" and "no tomorrow" and how their "backs are against the wall."
Bryan Rust, the Penguins' fine young forward, put a nice twist to the hoariest of playoff hockey clichés about backs and walls.
"We've got to play like ours is, too," said Rust.
In reality, Rust's Penguins still had another game if needed, but they were as anxious not to dress for Game 7 back home as the Senators were keen to force that game.
There was simply no chance that Game 6 would be a repeat of the 7-0 blowout the Senators had suffered in Game 5. Ottawa head coach Guy Boucher had made it clear that his team would never again engage in a speed-and-skill game in which Ottawa's talent could not possibly match that of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and several others.
"We're through with the run-and-gun thing," Boucher said earlier in the day. "We tried that last game, and we got killed. If we want to play head-to-head against them with their strengths, there is no game. We've just got to be ourselves."
And that, of course, meant returning to the smothering defence that had served the team so well, even if it had led to wide criticism about the style of play.
"We've got to trust what we're doing," added Senators forward Clarke MacArthur. "It's got us to the Eastern Conference final. If you don't trust it now, there isn't a whole lot of hope for you."
Both teams had spoken of the importance of the opening 10 minutes, and the score at that point, 0-0, was perfectly indicative of the play. Neither side could strike, so cautious was the hockey.
In the latter half of the opening period, matters opened up slightly. When the Penguins received a power play courtesy of a Mark Stone slashing penalty, Malkin found himself high in the slot with a perfect shot opportunity – only to see it turned aside by Senators goaltender Craig Anderson.
Anderson, who had been replaced twice in the 7-0 blowout, was spectacular this night, stopping 45 of 46 Pittsburgh shots. "He was a monster for us," said defenceman Marc Methot.
"Definitely a big bounce-back game," said an admiring Hoffman.
Asked when he determined he would have such a different game, Anderson said it began "the moment I got yanked." He left Game 5 in Pittsburgh determined to make amends.
Ottawa, in fact, almost opened the scoring when, minutes later, Erik Karlsson took a shot from the Penguins' blueline that Pittsburgh goalie Murray blocked. Stone then swung baseball-style at the sailing puck and almost scored, putting the puck off the post.
By the second period, the Penguins began taking over, though their waves of attacks were repelled time and again by Ottawa's tight defensive play.
With both teams serving penalties, it appeared that Pittsburgh defenceman Trevor Daley had scored on a goalmouth scramble. Boucher smartly used a "coach's challenge" to have the play reviewed. It was ruled no goal after video review showed there had been goaltender interference.
Pittsburgh did score early in the second when Malkin wrestled away from Zack Smith behind the Ottawa net, curled out in front and took a shot that Anderson saved. Malkin grabbed the rebound, however, went to his backhand and tossed the puck past Anderson's outstretched glove. It was Malkin's seventh goal of the postseason, his 24 points leading the playoffs.
Ottawa's hapless power play came into the game on a dismal 0-for-29 streak and lucked into a two-man advantage later in the second. Finally, the power play struck as Karlsson started a lovely tic-tac-toe passing play with Kyle Turris and Bobby Ryan, Ryan's one-timer beating Murray on the blocker side for his sixth of the playoffs.
"That wasn't a turning point, but a building point," said Ryan. "To see it go in I think we, and the collective community, took a breath of relief."
At this point, the Penguins were badly outshooting the Senators, but they could not put the game away as they wished. The stubborn Senators dealt with the Pittsburgh stars in the Ottawa end and even launched several counterattacks, at one point a deflected shot by Smith almost sneaking into the corner of the Pittsburgh net.
Early in the third period, however, the Senators caught a break. MacArthur got the puck to Claesson, who fed it to Hoffman. Hoffman drifted over the Pittsburgh blueline, held and then hammered a hard slap shot off the right post and in for his sixth goal of the postseason.
The Penguins pressed mightily after that – eventually outshooting the Senators 46-30 – but they could not beat Anderson. With just over four minutes remaining, they took a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty and were done. Not even a pulled goaltender in the dying moments could get this one back.
"Anything goes now," said Methot, already preparing for Game 7.
"We don't want to go there and shoot ourselves in the foot like last time."