History has a way of repeating itself.
Once again, the Ottawa Senators have a 3-2 series lead over the New York Rangers after a Game 5 victory. And just like the 2012 playoff series between these teams, the head coach of the Ottawa Senators has an intriguing lineup decision to make heading into a crucial Game 6 showdown.
Five years ago, Paul MacLean inserted Mark Stone into the lineup for Game 5 and his faith in the kid was rewarded, as Stone set up Jason Spezza for the eventual game-winning goal. But Stone played fewer than nine minutes in that game and when MacLean set his lineup for the potential clincher in Game 6, he opted to dress Jakob Silfverberg over Stone. The Senators lost the next two games, with some fans arguing that the coach should never have tinkered with a winning formula.
Now Guy Boucher has an equally interesting lineup decision on his hands heading into a potential series-clinching Game 6 in New York on Tuesday night. Chris Neil played fewer than three minutes in Game 5, but the Senators emerged victorious in a 5-4 overtime thriller.
So does Boucher stick with the exact same lineup that gave him a Game 5 win – or does he replace Neil with someone who could give him more minutes?
The decision to insert Neil in the first place touched off a polarizing debate within the Senators community. That debate has only magnified in the wake of Game 5.
The pro-Neil crowd argues that the Senators were lacking toughness in two straight losses in New York and needed his presence in the lineup to counter the dominance of the Rangers’ bottom-six forwards. No one can argue that the Senators looked like a different team in Game 5, winning more puck battles and showing more tenacity in all aspects of the game.
Neil specifically addressed Tanner Glass in the second period, jumping the Rangers forward and delivering a flurry of punches to an unsuspecting Glass after he committed an infraction against Dion Phaneuf. While Neil’s actions negated a potential Senators power play, it undeniably brought excitement for many inside Canadian Tire Centre, who applauded his efforts to send a message to Glass.
That the Senators scored two goals in the five minutes after only fuelled the pro-Neil crowd further, believing they could cite tangible proof of his impact.
The chain of causation is clear for them:
Ottawa was trailing 2-1.
Neil punches Glass.
Five minutes later Ottawa leads the game 3-2.
Case closed, right?
Not so fast.
It should be noted that Neil did not play single shift after the Glass incident. Ottawa surrendered its 3-2 lead by allowing the Rangers to score two goals and take a 4-3 lead into the dying moments of Game 5. If Derick Brassard didn’t tie up the game with a 1:26 left in regulation, Neil’s scuffle with Glass would have been merely viewed as a footnote in a postseason loss. Even worse, it would have been viewed in a negative light, as critics would have argued that Neil wasted a roster spot by playing only 2:26 in a losing effort.
But because the Senators escaped with an overtime win, the Neil incident with Glass is being viewed as a major turning point in the contest – and possibly the series.
There is no denying that Ottawa played a more physical, robust style in Game 5. The crowd inside Canadian Tire Centre loved it and showed their appreciation for Neil on multiple occasions. And perhaps having Neil in the lineup allowed some of Ottawa’s star players to feel a little bigger themselves. Kyle Turris, for example, was credited with a team-leading nine hits on Saturday afternoon. It’s a theory that Boucher pointed to directly when asked about Neil’s impact on Game 5.
“Following the two games in New York it was clear we needed to answer back some of the liberties they were taking on our skilled guys,” Boucher told reporters Sunday. “I thought [Neil] did a terrific job with his presence and a terrific job of what he needed to do. Yes, it did lift our guys up and a lot of our skilled guys played a terrific game. I thought they felt protected.”
The anti-fighting crowd won’t like that explanation, but if the Senators head coach says his star players felt more comfortable with Neil in the lineup the point certainly carries some value.
However, there is another side benefit to Neil playing in Game 5 that also impacted Ottawa’s skilled players, and perhaps it’s one that the anti-fighting crowd can get behind. Because Chris Neil logged only 2:26 of ice time, the Senators essentially played Game 5 with only 11 forwards. That meant others like Turris and Stone got an opportunity to play more frequently.
Even adjusting for the brief overtime period that was played in Game 5, the ice times for Turris and Stone were up significantly from Game 4, where Boucher essentially rolled four lines. Turris went from 17:28 of ice time in Game 4 to 24:58 in Game 5. Stone saw a similar jump from 16:40 in Game 4 up to 21:45 in Game 5.
So while there is some merit to the protection aspect Neil brings to the lineup, there is also something to be said for the extra ice time that gets distributed to stars in the back half of hockey games when coaches are more reluctant to use a tough guy.
A similar situation arose with the Senators in the 2013-14 season, when Matt Kassian was in the lineup. The Senators suffered only three regulation losses in the first 20 games Kassian suited up for that season, leading many to draw the simple conclusion that the Senators appreciated his toughness on the bench.
But Jason Spezza was quick to point out that the star players loved having a designated tough guy in the lineup because it usually meant their minutes would be increased over the course of the game. And while he always loved the protection, Spezza felt there needed to be equal weight given to the fact that the star players would see more ice time in those situations.
Perhaps this is an argument the pro-analytics/anti-fighting crowd can get behind as well. Maybe they could view Neil’s presence in the lineup as an opportunity for players like Turris and Stone to influence a game in a greater fashion. And that maybe increased ice time for those stars is more beneficial than dressing a fourth-liner such as Tommy Wingels – who could play eight to 10 minutes – but who rarely provides offence.
In any event, the Senators are now one win away from the conference finals. And no matter what side of the fence you sit on, you have to admit Neil did have an impact on the Senators winning Game 5.
Whether you choose to believe that impact came because of his toughness or the increased ice time to others is completely up to you.