When Guy Boucher took over the helm as Ottawa Senators head coach in the summer of 2016, he said it would take six weeks for players to get used to newly implemented systems and develop line chemistry.
His words still ring true with D.J. Smith standing behind the bench that Boucher once toiled.
The Senators opened the season 2-12-1 in the first 15 games, but are now hitting stride, winning five of their past seven, heading into a return engagement Saturday afternoon with the Calgary Flames – a team they thrashed 6-1 Thursday.
For Smith’s club, it’s been six weeks since the puck was dropped to open the 56-game shortened campaign at the Canadian Tire Centre. So maybe it’s not a coincidence the team appears to be finally finding its way.
“I go back to it all the time, with so many new players to the league, new players to our team, no exhibition, having a year off, it was a perfect storm for negativity. I thought we could’ve won more games early for sure, but we didn’t. But we’re a better hockey team for it moving forward,” said the Senators’ head coach in his media availability Friday. “We realize how we have to play to have success and to stay in games. We know how hard this Canadian Division is. You can’t give the other team opportunities, and if you do, you lose. This whole process has been a learning one for everyone. And all we’re trying to do is get better every day, and I think we are.”
The Senators have received several solid individual performances over this latest seven-game stretch, but it’s their overall play as a group that’s been at the forefront.
Their 32.5 shots on goal per game rank third league-wide. They’ve given up only three goals on the penalty kill in the seven games. The power play could use some improvement, two goals in 17 opportunities, but the unit is not without their chances.
With the exception of their blowout of the Flames Thursday, all four of the Senators’ other victories during this run were by one goal.
Brady Tkachuk scored with 8.2 seconds remaining in Winnipeg to defeat the Jets. Then there was the stunning five-goal comeback versus the Toronto Maple Leafs, which culminated in an Evegenii Dadonov overtime marker. Tkachuk again tallied the game-winner, this time in OT against the Montreal Canadiens. While Tim Stützle and Josh Norris each netted a shootout goal also versus the Canadiens.
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Nick Paul who’s turning into a burgeoning power forward in his own right, acknowledges his mates have learned how to close out games.
“I think we needed to figure out how to win and do it the right way. I think we’re starting to do that now. We certainly know what it takes. We started to close games this year in the third period,” explained Paul. “We were gripping our sticks to tight and playing the wrong way, and try and change things. Where now, I think we’re coming together as a team which is a lot better. We’re playing for each other. We’re doing it the right way. It’s five men back. We’re getting pucks in deep, and not make plays at the red line. I think we’ve found the right way to win. When it comes to the third period, we put trust in each other – do it the right way, instead of changing up our game.”
Drake Batherson, one of the Senators’ bright spots of late, has compiled six points in four games, including one goal in each of those.
Batherson agreed with his coach’s words, “It took time for us to come together as a team. But now everyone is firing on all cylinders. Everyone is playing great from the bottom up – from the goalies, defenseman, forwards – everyone is playing good. We’re starting to build chemistry. You’ve seen it last night (Thursday), all lines had a goal. It was great to see, and obviously winning three in a row is awesome.”
Tkachuk has also been a catalyst during the seven-game stretch, notching five goals, two assists.
Defenseman Erik Brannstrom scored his first two career goals since returning from an injury five games ago. Thomas Chabot has five assists sandwiched around two games that he missed due to injury.
Goaltender Matt Murray has also turned his game around since his slow start to the season. While his stats are still gaudy, 3.48 goals-against average, .888 save percentage, it was recently noted in Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts column, the 26-year old has been one of the NHL’s best netminders in recent weeks in analytics circles.
Murray’s GAA was hovering a full goal higher and his save percentage was .841 just a couple of weeks ago.
The Senators head into Saturday’s afternoon matchup seeking a fourth victory in a row for the first time since winning six straight March 2-11, 2017.