They’re selling hope in Ottawa this year, along with the belief they have more young talent than many think, a few of their dwindling cast of veterans will be rejuvenated after last season’s awful mess and the returns from San Jose for superstar Erik Karlsson will prove to be more substantial than widely suggested.
On Saturday night in Toronto, the Senators got a check mark in each of those boxes, plus their first triumph of the season, 5-3, over the high-powered Maple Leafs.
After blowing a third period lead in their home opener against Chicago, this time, the Sens hung on for the win, defending stubbornly and efficiently in the final three minutes in particular after Toronto head coach Mike Babcock decided to empty his crease in favour of an extra attacker. Eventually, Mark Stone ended the scoring with an empty netter.
The Sens weren’t dazzling in the win, but they took a lot of punches and kept counter-punching on a night the Leafs might have been slightly better than they had been in their season opener against Montreal but didn’t get the necessary goaltending to stay unbeaten.
"That’s got to be the identity of our team," said a pleased Ottawa coach Guy Boucher. "We don’t have the high-end power like they do, we know that. We came in here wanting to grow, and we did. The attitude is terrific, and we want to celebrate every win."
Blueliner Thomas Chabot, seen by many as the natural successor to the departed Karlsson on the Ottawa defence, scored twice. Freshman rearguard Maxim Lajoie, just 20, played almost 22 effective minutes. Together, on this night at least, Chabot and Lajoie combined to create the impression the Sens cupboard isn’t bare despite the departure of stars like Karlsson and winger Mike Hoffman.
After the game, the lanky Chabot, taken after Mathew Barzal and Kyle Connor as the 18th pick of the 2015 draft, sported a red Hydro Ottawa hat, emblematic of being Ottawa’s top player on the evening and in recognition of recent weather related troubles in the Ottawa/Gatineau area.
"We just want to recognize all the people for what happened," he said, referring to the tornado that struck the area late last month.
Team owner Eugene Melnyk has said he believes Chabot is a burgeoning "superstar," and the young defenceman seems comfortable with all the attention.
"But still, this is pretty much my first year," he said, noting he played part of last season in the minors. "I don’t necessarily feel more pressure. I’m just focussed on helping the team win."
Goalie Craig Anderson, looking for a bounce-back season after suffering through a miserable campaign last year and reportedly requesting a trade last June, stopped 34 of 37 Leaf shots for the win after making 39 saves in the season opening loss to the Blackhawks.
Asked if it felt particularly good to knock off the powerful Leafs, Anderson quipped, "For me, it feels good to beat anybody at this point."
If the veteran netminder can return to form, it could mean a great deal to the Sens, who are starting the season with a young group and could get even younger if impending free agents Matt Duchene and Stone end up being traded rather than re-signed by the Sens.
It wasn’t a perfect night for the 37-year-old Anderson, but he was better than Freddie Andersen in the Leaf net, who is off to another slow start and allowed four goals on the first 18 shots he faced. After Ottawa newcomer Dylan DeMelo, part of the Karlsson deal with San Jose, gave the visitors a 1-0 lead in the first, the two goalies combined to give up four goals – two each – in the opening 4:30 of the second period.
"The second period was not a good period for the Anderson boys," chuckled the Ottawa goalie, referring to himself and Toronto’s Danish goalie.
The second Ottawa goal in that flurry came from speedy centre Chris Tierney, who also became a Senator when Karlsson was sent west. A first round pick, a second rounder and prospect Josh Norris are thought to be the most important long-term pieces of that trade for Ottawa, but DeMelo and Tierney served notice against the Leafs they intend to make a contribution as well.
The game went into the third tied 3-3 but at 1:42 of the period Chabot scored his second of the game, fooling Leaf rookie defenceman Igor Ozhiganov with a deke then beating Andersen to score a pretty go-ahead goal that stood up as the winner.
The 20-year-old Lajoie had a goal and an assist against Chicago, so thus far, at least, the youth and offensive contributions on the Ottawa blueline are encouraging developments in a season that many believe will see the Sens finish near the bottom of the NHL standings.
Getting three points from their first two games of the season is an encouraging beginning for this Ottawa team. Montreal, also predicted to be headed for a difficult campaign, also won on Saturday night, while Winnipeg, a 114-point team last year, was bombed in Dallas.
So the supposedly weaker Canadian teams did better than expected on the first Saturday night of the season, while Toronto and Winnipeg, thought to be the class of the Great White North, suffered disappointing defeats.
And that, folks, is why they play the games. Early season hockey can yield some surprising results before everyone gets settled in.