The Ottawa Senators could be forgiven for reflecting back on the “good old days.”
No, not the 2006-07 season, when Ottawa reached the Stanley Cup final, we’re talking about the first seven games of the 2018-19 NHL season for a young and rebuilding Senators team.
It was two-plus weeks into the season and the mood around Palladium Drive could not have been lighter. The harvest sun shone and smiles radiated.
On Oct. 21, the Senators owned a 4-2-1 record, with victories over the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Dallas Stars to their credit.
The kids were on fire with Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot and Maxime Lajoie leading the team in most of the offensive categories.
Right from camp, the remaining veterans – namely Matt Duchene, Mark Stone and Mark Borowiecki — had spoken of a better culture in the dressing room, and a chip on the shoulders of players after a horrific off-season.
For the first seven games they did. For a few precious days, fans forgot about stingy payroll and the departure of Erik Karlsson and embraced a fun, exciting young club.
After the next seven games (1-4-2), a reality set in so harshly that the team held a players-only meeting following Sunday’s soul-crushing 4-3 overtime loss to Tampa Bay, a game the Senators had in their grasp until the dying seconds of the third period. The Lightning net empty and Ottawa killing a penalty in a four-versus-six disadvantage, Borowiecki failed to clear the zone and two forwards (Tom Pyatt, Magnus Paajarvi) left the zone with him to pursue what looked to be an empty-net opportunity.
Instead, Tampa defenceman Ryan McDonagh stripped Borowiecki of the puck, a steal that former Senators defenceman Jason York called “all world.”
Left defenceless (literally defence-less with Borowiecki up at the blue line), Senators goaltender Craig Anderson was victimized by Brayden Point on a pass from Tyler Johnson with 26 seconds remaining. Tampa needed just 14 seconds of overtime to win it on a Yanni Gourde shot, following a net drive by Point.
The Senators never recovered from that punch to the gut late in the third.
Duchene touched on that theme post-game when he told reporters, “we’ve been a bit of a punching bag in the third period.”
It hasn’t helped the cause that when the Senators do hold a third-period lead, as they did Sunday and also Thursday versus the Buffalo Sabres, they drop their up-tempo, heavy forecheck game and sit back.
The third period Sunday was arguably the Senators’ most passive approach of the season, modelling a 1-4 system for much of it (with leads of 2-1 and then 3-2). In fact, the lone “forechecker” tended to approach with caution rather than energy and hustle.
Sadly, the Senators’ loss ruined a night in which the club had a decent first-period bounce-back after having their lunch handed to them in a 9-2 rout in Buffalo the day before.
Some of the uglier statistics for the Senators, after 14 games:
• Goals for/against has shifted as though the ice has tilted. At 45/59, or minus-14, it’s the second-worst mark in the Eastern Conference (thank you, Detroit Red Wings).
• The road record is abysmal (1-4-1). Without favourable line matchups, they are getting eaten alive by elite players. At home, the Senators are a respectable 4-2-2.
• Road power outage. Their road power play is 1-for-14, or 7.1 per cent, ranked 30th. Inexplicably, the Senators have displayed superior puck movement on their home power plays, and are third in the NHL at 36.7 per cent.
• Take 40. Ottawa gives up nearly 40 shots per game (39.1), now worst in the league, supplanting Anaheim in that category. Shots for are 28, meaning they are minus-11 in shots per game, on average. In the third period, Tampa outshot the Sens 21-4. Against Buffalo last Thursday, it was 23-8 in the third. There ought to be a mercy rule.
• Brady, Brady: the Senators are 2-4-2 since Tkachuk went down with a torn ligament in his leg in a game against Dallas Oct. 15.
Not that the loss of Tkachuk is the be-all, end-all but the rookie winger symbolized a renewed spirit and energy to this young lineup. He should provide a lift this week, assuming he is declared ready to go either Tuesday versus the visiting New Jersey Devils or Thursday against the Vegas Golden Knights at the CTC.
Amid the tailspin – losses in six of the past seven — not enough has been made of the loss of two veteran, two-way centres who could help clean up the Senators’ horrendous play in their own zone. Jean-Gabriel Pageau suffered a torn Achilles during pre-season fitness testing, and Zack Smith is out with facial fractures after getting a skate in the face on Oct. 26 in Colorado.
Unlike others around town who relentlessly question the ownership and management of this hockey club, the Senators players insist they will accept their share of the blame.
“As a group we have to take some ownership for our play and our results,” Borowiecki said after the meeting. “There’s been a few too many years here for us where the players haven’t taken ownership.”
RED FLAG: BUSES CUT
The Senators situation is grim, far beyond the wins and losses columns.
Sunday’s attendance was 11,364, easily the smallest home crowd of the season. As an ominous signal to how this team is trending, OC Transpo, Ottawa’s bus service provider, has announced that beginning with Tuesday’s game against the Devils, the frequency of buses running out to the CTC is being reduced “based on observed ridership levels.”
Too many lonely bus drivers.
It was understood a segment of the fan base has stopped driving out to Kanata for games. Clearly, they’re not lining up to take transit options, either.