In a season of low expectations, one thing you can’t say about the Ottawa Senators is that they’ve played boring hockey.
“The biggest change I’ve seen with Ottawa this year is not the roster, it’s the way they play,” noted Elliotte Friedman on Sportsnet’s Wednesday Night Hockey broadcast. “Last year they were a team that was very, very passive. They waited out at centre ice, they basically said, ‘You walk into our trap and we’ll take care of you.’ This year it’s been different.”
The Senators have come a long way from this time last season when Guy Boucher received flak for putting Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Tom Pyatt and Cody Ceci on the ice to start a 3-on-3 period to counter New Jersey’s “high-end offensive guys” with a shutdown unit. The Sens were scored on before their best players ever hit the ice.
Now you watch the Senators and there are shades of Lindy Ruff’s Dallas Stars, minus the super-stacked top line. This year’s Senators aren’t afraid to pinch in on offence, with forwards demanded to cover for the defencemen who step up.
Partly because of this, young defencemen Max Lajoie and Thomas Chabot are off to fast starts offensively and Ottawa has 10 even strength goals through four games — good for fifth in the league and just four fewer than Toronto, with one less game played.
“Boucher said, ‘You have to coach the personnel you have and we feel we can play this way,'” Friedman continued. “And the one thing Senators players said was, ‘We were told we would have the freedom to play like this as long as we cover for each other.'”
What does this aggressive style look like? Here’s a quick taste.
Down 5-2 to the Bruins late in the third — so, granted, it’s a desperate situation anyway — the Sens go all-in. Four players show up below the faceoff dot, forcing the Bruins to clog the front of the net. This leaves Dylan DeMelo wide open for the point shot, which is tipped in by Bobby Ryan.
And then there’s this Lajoie goal, his first in the NHL. A sign of the times, the rookie feels bold enough to rush in deep and catch all the Blackhawks defenders facing the puck, with their backs turned to the defenders. He heads to the wide open slot completely untouched.
And for this goal, Friedman breaks it down in the video atop this page, pointing out how the two players on the right side slide back to cover the pinching defenceman, but also noting that when the initial shot is taken, all five Senators players are basically at the hashmarks and in.
There is, of course, risk to this kind of play when icing a young, inexperienced lineup.
The Senators’ three defencemen with the highest average minutes per game are all under 25 years old and six of their forwards also either come under that age, or haven’t yet played 100 NHL games. Others, such as Mikkel Boedker or Ryan, don’t list defence as a primary strength yet have to play a sort of fallback role in this kind of system from time to time.
Inherently, you’re going to get some breakdowns that lead to goals.
For instance on this goal versus the Hawks, Ceci pinches low and tries to put the puck on net. Colin White, rather than hanging back on the boards, also pinches and gives an offensive passing option with room to shoot. But when Ceci’s shot is blocked and the puck moves the other way, it leaves no one on the left side to challenge Jonathan Toews, who springs in for a high-quality chance off the rush, which he scores on.
And here, also in a tie game, Alex Formenton tries to attack the net but is excellently fended off by Ivan Provorov. Anticipating a scoring opportunity, four Senators move in below the faceoff dot, which opens the door for the Flyers to spring back the other way with numbers. Jakub Voracek doesn’t miss.
But though Ottawa has allowed a number of odd-man rushes early on, with better goaltending they may have found their way to a couple more points in the standings. Some of the blame for their league-high five goals-against per game — maybe even a good chunk of it — falls in Craig Anderson‘s lap. Overall, the Sens have done a fairly good job keeping shots to the lower danger areas, but their goalie still has a sub-.900 save percentage to this point.
On Friday, the Senators put Ceci, Ryan Dzingel and Formenton on the IR, calling up two more youngsters in Christian Jaros and Nick Paul to the NHL lineup. It may not immediately put an end to Boucher’s experiment, but it could put more of a strain on the defensive side.
For a coach who has been so defensive in the past, and who was responsible for this awful forecheck, it’s worth wondering how long he’ll endure the lapses.
And how will the coach let this play against a team like, say, the Dallas Stars, who Ottawa faces at home next Monday? Or the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins, who they face next month? The Sens will be further into the season and facing vicious counter-attacks so will the defencemen still pinch as often?
If you’re a Sens fan staring down a long season, this style — along with the youngsters in the lineup — are a reason to show up to the rink. But if you’re the coach whose job could be on the line, this is the kind of thing that can make your hair turn grey.