The Ottawa Senators came within five minutes of joining the elite teams of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs last night, the Vancouver Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Unfortunately, they would have joined them being down two games to none.
It seemed that this would indeed be the case right up until, in a dramatic push by the team grinders, Ottawa tied Game 2 of their best-of-seven series with the New York Rangers with only 4:37 left to go in the game and then went on to win 3-2 in overtime.
Chris Neil scored the winning goal in this important match for Ottawa at the 1:17 mark of the first extra period when he was able to fire a backhand shot during a wild scramble in front of Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
"That's the kind of goals you win with," Neil said.
"I lost track of the puck," Lundqvist said of the scramble.
"There are going to be bad bounces, but you just move on."
Ottawa now has the treasured "split" they were hoping for heading into Saturday's game. The series, tied at one game apiece, will now move to Ottawa for games 3 and 4, Monday and Wednesday.
"It's a race to four and it gets us closer," said Ottawa centre Jason Spezza.
It marked the fourth straight overtime win on the road for the Ottawa Senators in playoff hockey. There would have been no overtime, however, had Ottawa's Nick Foligno not chipped a puck past Lundqvist with only 4:37 left in regular time.
It was important to the Senators that they avoided going down 2-0 in a series. Seven times before that had happened, and not once had the team been able to mount a comeback to win the series.
That Game 2 was going to have a different personality from Game 1 was evident the moment the opening lineup sheets were delivered: Ottawa not only inserting tough defenceman Matt Carkner and serial fighter Zenon Konopka – who would set up Foligno's critical marker – into the lineup but actually starting, as well as enforcer Neil, while the Rangers countered with Brandon Prust, Stu Bickel, Mike Rupp and others.
Two minutes and 15 seconds into the match, Carkner body slammed massive 6'7" 244-lb Brian Boyle and began pounding on Boyle as he lay on the ice.
The reason for the Senators unleashing its force de frapp was obvious. In Thursday's 4-2 loss to the Rangers, the Senators had been out-muscled constantly, the worst moment when their key set-up man, defenceman Erik Karlsson had been turned into a jabbing bag by Boyle, who is approximately seven times Karlsson's size.
The strategy heading into Game 2 had been to free Karlsson up. "I've got to put some rockets on my skates," the swift-skating 21-year-old had joked in the morning. If he is skates were to become rockets, then Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean was determined they would be accompanied by suitable weapons.
With Boyle being pounded, Rangers centre Brandon Dubinsky flew to his side, jumping on top of Carkner and earning himself a two-minute penalty and a game misconduct for his troubles.
Carkner also got a game – an excellent trade-off for the Senators – as well as two minutes for roughing and five for fighting.
Dubinsky's expulsion threw him into a rage, the fiery Ranger dumped a barrel of Gatorade as he made his way down the chute to the dressing room.
Neither coach was surprised at the heightened physicality of Game 2. Rangers head coach John Tortorella said he fully expected the change in Ottawa's tactics and Senators head coach Paul MacLean said his lineup changes were deliberately intended to "make the game more physical."
"It was an intense game," said overtime hero Neil.
"It's going to get more intense as the series goes on," predicted Spezza. "The temperature is obviously rising."
"It's going to get elevated every night," promised the Rangers Boyle.
Ottawa killed off Carkner's five-minute penalty wonderfully – they even had more scoring chances than the Rangers – but could not kill off a two-minute penalty that soon followed, when the Senators' Sergei Gonchar went off for tripping.
New York's Anton Stralman scored on the power play when he one-timed a perfect cross-ice pass from defenceman Dan Girardi past Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson.
The Rangers might have gone up by two goals in the first period had not Anderson, who was brilliant all night long, made a spectacular glove save off New York captain Ryan Callahan, who found himself all alone in front of the Ottawa net with the puck and no Senators for miles.
It seemed only obvious that warfare would break out, considering the early tactics of the coaches. In the second period, the worst imaginable thing happened to the Senators when they lost captain Daniel Alfredsson to a nasty elbow from Carl Hagelin. Alfredsson, Ottawa's playoff MVP over the past decade and more, left the game under duress and did not return.
"It's one of those hits we're trying to take out of the game," said Karlsson.
It is not known whether Hagelin's hit will warrant further discipline from the league; it is known that a healthy Alfredsson is pivotal to any playoff success the Senators might hope to attain.
MacLean had nothing to report on Alfredsson following the match.
Soon after Alfredsson was hit, little Karlsson was run over and went down hard. No penalty was called and Karlsson seemed to lose his fire for the remaining of the second period.
Strangely, however, he would tie the game when he blindly, perhaps even groggily, threw a pass out to the front of the Rangers' net and had the puck bounce in behind goaltender Henrik Lundqvist off the skate of New York defenceman Michael Del Zotto.
"Kicking motion!" screamed a leather-lunged wit from high in the stands.
The Rangers had gone ahead 2-1 early in the third period when Ruslan Fedotenko appeared to have an excellent shooting opportunity but instead slipped the puck back through various legs to big Boyle, steamrolling in from the blueline, and Boyle's shot through the bodies beat Anderson.
It seemed that this might stand up as the winner until Foligno was able to chip home the tying goal and force the overtime that left the Senators and Rangers tied at one game apiece.
"We're looking forward to getting home," said MacLean, "and protecting what we earned today."