It’s been only two games of a 56-game season, but the Ottawa Senators are forging an identity of a hard-working team that will play hard until the final horn sounds. Outplayed for a lot of stretches Saturday – outshot 40-19 in the game, the Senators managed to hang around – thanks to the sparkling goaltending of Matt Murray, and a third period highlight reel first NHL goal by Tim Stützle, before losing a 3-2 decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The loss came off the throes of a 5-3 Senators victory the previous evening over the same Maple Leafs’ club. Senators’ General Manager Pierre Dorion and head coach D.J. Smith each re-iterated leading up to camp and during, that their club won’t be an easy out. The Senators outhit the Maple Leafs by whopping 63-27 total in their two-game set. Josh Brown, Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson led the team with seven hits apiece.
With eight players on the roster six-foot-three or taller, three of whom are six-foot-five on the back end, Brown, Braydon Coburn, Erik Gudbranson, the Senator will make it known to their opposition that they won’t back down.
There was a lot of good coming out of the Senators’ opening games. Conversely, there was also some bad that Smith’s team needs to work on. However, that’s to be expected when the coach is attempting to phase in three new faces defensemen and six forwards into his lineup, and a seventh, Alex Galchenyuk that’s yet to dress.
Brady Tkachuk’s three-point, one goal, two-assist night Friday, tied a career-high. The 21-year old’s performance was only the fifth-such opening game in franchise history.
Josh Norris added his first two NHL points.
Drake Batherson is playing with confidence, also posting a pair of assists. At six-foot-three, 206 pounds, Batherson isn’t shy to use his size.
Nick Paul who skated on the non-starter squad in last Monday’s scrimmage, may have used the game as motivation. Paul has compiled one goal, one assist over the weekend. Awarded a two-year contract in the offseason, Paul also displayed his defensive game,. The forward is tied for the NHL lead with four takeaways, albeit it’s early.
“D.J. is the coach. He gives positions to people that want it the most. It’s not about where you are in the rankings. It’s who works the hardest and who can do the best for the team. That good compete in practice pushed us to have a good game last night and a really good effort tonight,” said Paul via Zoom postgame Saturday. “I just do the same thing that I do every year, put my head down and work, do what’s asked of me – team first. I’m not trying to go through a team and put up a bunch of points. Whatever the team needs of me, whether it’s shutdown or they need me to go penalty kill, I’m there blocking shots – doing whatever I need to do. I’m just putting my head down doing whatever I have to do.”
On the blue line, Thomas Chabot hasn’t skipped a beat. Chabot scored the Senators’ first goal of the season. The alternate captain averaged 25:47 time-on-ice versus the Leafs and was a plus-five.
Nikita Zaitsev who moved up to Chabot’s right side as the game wore on Friday and is also a plus-five through two games. More surprisingly Zaitsev earned three assists, all primary. The fifth-year NHL garnered only 12 points all last season.
What can you say about Tim Stützle? The Senators’ third overall selection is a work in progress, but it’s going to be fun to watch the 19-year old grow as the campaign moves on.
Stützle’s first NHL goal was a thing of beauty. His hand-eye coordination may be second to none – that’s something coming from someone who was making his second NHL appearance.
— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) January 17, 2021
“It’s tough to come in here with a bunch of new people, only have a few practices when you’re playing the Toronto Maple Leafs. – get a couple of games under your belt – just learning the systems, he’s going to be a special player. You can see his speed. He’s going to become a better player as the season goes on,” explained the Senators’ head coach. “You can see in the o-zone, he’s starting to make some plays. He’s starting to skate a little bit more with the puck. He’s getting more comfortable every day.”
Stützle himself, has an infectious personality and a wide-eyed smile. He’s also a strong-team player, always deflecting to his teammates.
“It was a great feeling, but in the end I wanted to come out with the win. After the goal, we had an excellent push. Everybody wanted to get that third goal.”
On his goal, Stützle noted, “It went pretty perfect. It was kind of flat. D.J. told us to get more pucks to the net. I thought it was like flat. I hit it very good. I think it went in short-side. I think overall it was a good play by the whole line.”
The Viersen, Germany native is also cognizant that he’s still learning, and from what fans have seen, he’s a quick study.
“I had more confidence. I felt better in making my plays with the puck. I’m a creative player. I want to have the puck and make plays. I have some stupid things to work on, just some work in the d-zone. I got to get the pucks out. I still have some work to do. I try to pick out as much as I can. Everything went pretty fast, right from the World Junior. It’s been a lot of stuff. I’ve tried to get as much as I can, learn from the veterans. We have such a great team, and everyone is working for each other. You could see that tonight. It’s a lot of fun being here right now.”
Goaltender Matt Murray was a beacon of strength for the Senators. Appearing in consecutive games, “Muzz” held the team in early Friday when the Senators were outshot heavily in the first thirty minutes. Murray certainly kept his club in the game Saturday, facing 40 shots in a one-goal loss. Murray stopped all 10 shots in what amounted to a second period extended power play.
On starting back-to-back games, the 26-year old commented, “I don’t really think too much about that. I just need to be ready all the time. Honestly for the most part, we kept the shots to the outside. There wasn’t any Grade A, wide-open shots or anything like that.”
It’s not so much “The Bad.” but the Senators do have a few things to work on in the weeks ahead. Obviously, with as many as nine new face in the lineup, finding line chemistry is certainly going to take awhile.
Senators’ centres were only 41 percent on draws, definitely something needing work. Again practice time, may sort this issue out long term. One the reasons for being outshot by a lengthy margin Saturday and the first 30 minutes Friday, was buoyed by the fact, the club won only 15 of 42 defensive zone faceoffs. Leafs Mitch Marner’s go-ahead goal Saturday was a direct result of a Senators’ faceoff loss.
The Senators only launched 43 shots on goal in the two games. However, they did tally seven goals, which was a boon, especially on so few shots.
“I don’t think the chances were as bad as the shots. I think we came in with the idea we were going to give up a lot of shots on net. We kept them outside for the most part. We just couldn’t create much ourselves. Give them credit. They played hard, they checked. The penalty kill did the job for them, and they goaltending was good” Smith said postgame last night.
There’s little doubt without plenty of practice time and a lack of preseason, special teams are tough to work on. The high-octane Leafs were three-for-nine this weekend against the Senators’ PK.
The club’s power play will also be front and centre this week, as the team faces the Winnipeg Jets Tuesday and Thursday before embarking on a seven-game road swing.
The Senators’ PP went one-for-nine versus Toronto. There was decent puck movement at time. However, the team only accumulated nine shots during those nine power plays.
Smith also credited the Leafs penalty kill for as one of the reasons his PP unit was stymied, “I didn’t think the power play was very good tonight. We are a young team and we made some young mistakes on the power play. But in saying that we had a couple of chances on the five-on-three. (Evgenii) Dadonov had a clean look on the back door. On some nights, those are going to go on in. Tonight we didn’t like our power play tonight. We made some tired mistakes, but don’t take credit away from their penalty kill. They did a great job.”
All in all, the Senators showed some promise for fans, especially versus an arch-rival in the Maple Leafs, in a season where every opponent is a tough one in the North Division.
Murray summed it up, “I think it shows if we play the right way we can stay in the game with any team. That’s a heck of a team over there. To do what we did in these two games, showed us what we’re capable of. It gave us lots of confidence, plenty to build off from. We had plenty of chances late in the game to tie it up.”