He plays a miniscule two minutes and 26 seconds. He spends five times as much time in the penalty box as he does on the ice. He scores no goals, no assists, doesn’t even take a shot on net – and his teammates call him the player of the game.
The scoresheet said it was Ottawa Senators 5, New York Rangers 4. Ottawa now leads the series three games to two and can wrap up the Eastern Conference semi-final on Tuesday in New York City.
But we can get to those details later.
The buzz in the Senators dressing room was all about Chris Neil, the big, physical assistant captain who spent the last two months as a healthy scratch. So manhandled and embarrassed had the Ottawa team been during two defeats at Madison Square Garden that a decision was made to put him into the game. He would carry a message.
When Derik Brassard looked at his e-mail late Friday night and learned that Neil would be dressing, he got excited.
“I’ve never known a guy so passionate about the game,” Brassard said.
At the 3:13 mark of the second period, Neil went to work. The New York Rangers were up 2-1 and the player who had driven the Senators to distraction, Tanner Glass, was again offering face rubs and cheap shots at every opportunity. Neil had had enough.
Neil was in the penalty box serving a two-minute penalty for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct when his teammates began their comeback. When he came out, the Senators were ahead 3-2; the Ottawa players saluted him with stick taps as he made his way back across the ice.
“He did a terrific job,” said Ottawa head coach Guy Boucher, who called the 37-year-old Neil his “ammunition.”
“That’s the best penalty I’ve seen anybody take in a long time,” Kyle Turris said.
It would be Turris who would score the winning goal at 8:28 of overtime, when he came in over the New York line and, on his second try, shot one that eluded Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
It was Brassard, Neil’s other big fan, who made overtime possible. With the Rangers out in front 4-3 and time winding down, Boucher pulled his goaltender, Craig Anderson, and sent Brassard over the boards as the extra attacker.
Ottawa captain Erik Karlsson had the puck at the point and sent a cross-ice pass to Clarke MacArthur, who took a shot that rebounded high in the air. As it fell back toward the ice, Brassard swatted it out of the air, the puck hitting two Rangers bodies and a skate before slipping in behind Lundqvist.
It was a crazy, chaotic game. At times the two goaltenders looked as if they could use some of the thousands of sandbags that area residents were piling around flood-threatened homes. At other times, both goalies were brilliant.
The game opened with both teams seemingly rattled – Ottawa understandably, given their miserable two-game effort in New York – but the Rangers, too, looked uncertain and mistake prone, particularly on the power play.
The Rangers scored first only 4:07 into the match when, on a three-on-two rush, Brendan Smith took the puck to the outside and then hit the trailer, Jesper Fast, who had the empty side of the Ottawa net awaiting him.
Barely a minute later they scored again, when Nick Holden blew by Ottawa defenceman Cody Ceci and took a wrist shot that lightly ticked off Ceci’s stick. The shot, which should have been an easy save, floated past goaltender Craig Anderson’s glove and into the top of the net.
It seemed a rout might be on, but Ottawa was able to get one back a couple of minutes later when Mark Stone, who has had a troubled series, managed to poke a puck past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist on a goalmouth scramble.
“Stone’s push-back goal was there to get us back,” Boucher said.
With Neil watching from the penalty box, the Senators tied the game at two goals apiece early in the second period when Karlsson shot up the ice with the puck, crossed the Rangers’ blueline and left a drop pass for MacArthur. MacArthur send a perfect pass across to Mike Hoffman, who one-timed a slapshot past Lundqvist.
Almost immediately, the Senators moved in front when Smith carried the puck in the Rangers’ zone and sent a bad pass toward Tom Pyatt, who had to turn backward as he hit the slot area in front of the net. The puck glanced off Pyatt’s stick and into the New York net.
It was now the Rangers’ turn to play catchup. Late in the middle period, Michael Grabner snared a puck in front of the Senators net, spun to his forehand and sent the puck through to Ryan McDonagh, who simply tucked the puck in behind Anderson.
In the third period, however, both goaltenders were hot. Lundqvist stopped Ryan and Pageau, both with clean chances. Then the Rangers’ Chris Kreider came in alone on Anderson and Anderson turned his shot aside to shouts of “Andy! Andy! Andy!”
They were chanting Anderson’s nickname again when he made what appeared to be a sensational diving glove save on young forward Jimmy Vessey. The officials ruled no goal on the ice but video replay showed that the puck had indeed crossed the goal line.
“I knew when they didn’t show it on the Jumbotron that it was in,” Anderson said.
It was then Brassard’s time to shine, as the former Ranger tied the match at the 18:34 mark of regulation, forcing the overtime.
The Rangers believed they had won the game but a seeming goal by Michael Grabner was disallowed when it was ruled he had hit the puck out of the air with a high stick.
That left Turris to win the game with his shot.
Turris did not, however, think he deserved anywhere near the praise he had for the guy who’d played 2:26.
“He didn’t play much,” Turris said of Neil. “But maybe he has been our most important player.”