The objective here, ladies and gentlemen, was straightforward.
Write a nice little homage to the Ottawa Senators, about how they’re the Canadian NHL team that’s just not getting enough attention and credit for their overachieving season so far, and then put a nice little bow around the whole thing by talking about how the Grey Cup champion Ottawa RedBlacks have changed the conversation in the nation’s capital.
Perhaps City of A Champion, no plural, could become City of Champions, plural, in the reasonably near future.
There was that adorable tweet, after all, from Erik Karlsson, who’s been channelling his inner Craig Ludwig so far this season, blocking shots like he gets credited with an assist for every one.
Defenceman Mark Borowiecki, who grew up in Ottawa, seemed to read a larger perspective into the football triumph.
“Maybe it gives us a little more respect in Canadian sports,” he told the Ottawa Citizen. “Sometimes it seems like we’re kind of the forgotten Canadian city. Toronto gets a lot of attention, those western teams get a lot of attention. Montreal, obviously. So it’s kind of nice to get us back on the map.”
So that was the plan here. The straightforward objective and the homage and the bow and the maybe-the-Sens-are-next sentiment.
And then the Senators played that game, with that first period, on Tuesday night against the Buffalo Sabres. After shutting down the league’s highest scoring team, the Rangers, they gave up five to the league’s lowest scoring team, the Sabres.
So much for the plan. Back to thinking, what to think of Guy Boucher’s sort-of-new-look Senators?
A glance at the standings and things are pretty darn good. Four straight wins before the Buffalo game had vaulted Ottawa to sixth overall, and even the 5-4 defeat to the Sabres left them a solid 9-5-1 in November. As of Wednesday morning, fuelled by the inspirational story of workhorse goaltender Craig Anderson, they were the second best NHL team in the Great White North, five points behind the Habs, three points up on the Oilers, with a nice five-point bulge ahead of their provincial rivals from Toronto.
Under Boucher, and with a lopsided home-to-road scheduling ratio early, the Sens have certainly been a different team. Karlsson’s league-leading blocked shot total – he had another three on Tuesday night – is evidence of a different mindset on his part, and in general Ottawa has been much more committed to defending this year after a lot of sloppiness last season in Dave Cameron’s final season behind the bench last year.
After being the NHL’s 26th best defensive team a year ago, the Sens are now 10th, and that’s after giving up the five-spot to a Buffalo team that usually can’t score but was welcoming Jack Eichel back to the fray. This year’s version of the Sens is scoring about a half-goal per game less, however.
In an overall sense, the club has quietly gone about its business and done much better on the ice than most pundits would have anticipated, but that doesn’t really change the sense that the team’s direction in a league where, if you’re not winning you better be losing to get the best draft picks, remains unclear.
Even their fans seem uncertain. Or possibly apathetic. Just 14,259 were at the Canadian Tire Centre for the team’s 14th home game on Tuesday night in a building that has a capacity of 20,500 for NHL hockey. Five seasons ago the Senators were sixth in NHL attendance, drawing upwards of 19,000 every night. Now, they’re 23rd, down an alarming 15 per cent at the gate compared to last year’s total average attendance figure.
To be sure, in a small market, the RedBlacks have cut into the hockey club’s business, probably the only NHL city in Canada where that can be said.
“We see (the Senators) as a direct competitor,” said RedBlacks owner Jeff Hunt on Sportsnet The Fan 590 last week.
There’s lots of talk about a new downtown arena which has a ways to go, and the Sens have one of the lowest payrolls in the league, something local fans certainly notice.
Amidst chatter of RedBlacks off-season maneuverings and plans to host next year’s Grey Cup, the Senators seem to lack definition. Are they a team set to win now, or one building for the future? They have some good young players in the system like Thomas Chabot, Logan Brown and Colin White, but not the true blue-chippers like those owned by the Oilers, Flames, Leafs and Jets.
Still, they’re winning right now. Karlsson seems to be re-defining his game, and Mike Hoffman’s hat trick on Tuesday night continues to provide evidence he may be on the verge of becoming one of the league’s more better sharpshooters.
Bobby Ryan, on the other hand, is off to a horrible start as that contract continues to haunt the Sens, and Ryan went down with a bothersome hand problem again against Buffalo and won’t play Thursday.
So what to think of the Sens? The record tells you one thing, but the response of the fans tells you what they think of it all. Apparently the RedBlacks have set a new standard for Ottawa, and the hockey public wants to be convinced the Senators can match it.