The Ottawa Senators are enjoying their new up-tempo style of play.
That is, when they don’t end up chasing their own tail, as seems to happen whenever they face the Boston Bruins.
Minus their two lopsided losses to Boston (6-3 and 4-1), Ottawa would have a sparkling 4-1-1 record to open the season. However, that big 10-4 – the combined goal totals for the Bruins against the Senators – is instructive for a young Senators team trying to skate with the NHL’s big boys.
To be fair, the Senators did outshoot the Bruins 39-32 and put two pucks past Tuukka Rask, which defenceman Brandon Carlo swatted away, but the Bruins demonstrated what it is to finish plays at the highest level, especially on the power play, which struck twice.
In particular, the celebrated line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand has schooled Ottawa to the tune of 19 total points in those two games, Oct. 8 in Boston and Oct. 23 at the Canadian Tire Centre. Marchand used a tutoring analogy post-game when he spoke of undressing Senators defenceman Dylan DeMelo with a drag-deke move before dishing to Pastrnak for the Bruins final goal: “He reached, I teach’d.”
Did he ever.
With Ottawa trailing 3-1 at the time, the play illustrates the risk/reward element of the Senators’ more aggressive style of play this season, compared to their more static approach in 2017-18. The same coach, Guy Boucher, is encouraging his defencemen to pinch to keep pucks in, with as many as two forwards firing in on the forecheck, as long as one forward hangs back, ready to retreat.
Leading to the 2-1 that precipitated Marchand’s brilliant deke of DeMelo, defence partner Mark Borowiecki gets caught trying to keep the puck in at the Bruins blue line and ends up chasing the play futilely up ice.
The Senators do have some positive scoring highlights this season, creating turnovers in the offensive zone that have led to goals. But Boston’s skilled players took full advantage of their opportunities, especially on the power play where they scored 5-on-4 and 5-on-3.
How different is the Senators’ approach this season?
Borowiecki says the “pace” of play is the biggest thing.
“Whereas, last year I think we were a little more reactionary, we were set up in our defensive structure and waiting for teams to come at us and trying to capitalize on turnovers and mistakes — this year we’re trying to bring it to them,” Borowiecki says.
“We’re going to make mistakes and give up chances but we’ve got everyone buying in and skating back hard and trying to recover.”
Skating back hard didn’t get it done on that Pastrnak goal, but the Senators are nothing if not entertaining, willing to trade chances against teams with superior talent.
How long this lasts is up for debate. It takes energy to play this style and the Senators gentle early schedule (five home games over 14 days from Oct. 10-23) was conducive to aggressive play. The Senators had just two early road games and are heading out on the road for three (Colorado, Las Vegas and Arizona), and 10 games overall in the next 17 days.
Fatigue may change things, but for now this young Senators team has the green light to go-go.
HOW IT’S DIFFERENT
Gone is the passive 1-3-1 that Boucher was known for in Tampa Bay (who can forget the in-game impasse in 2012 when the Philadelphia Flyers mocked this defensive posture by refusing to advance the puck). In its place, the Senators will send one forward deep, or two depending on reads, while the third forward is expected to remain back to help defend. The idea is to cause havoc, and turn pucks over in the offensive zone, instead of with a passive, neutral zone trap.
“Ask any defencemen in this league, it’s hard when you’ve got two guys coming in hot,” Borowiecki says.
According to veteran centre Zack Smith, the style of play isn’t as different as the attitude that comes with it.
“There’s a different mindset within the group,” Smith says. “We have more freedom to forecheck and playoff offence, just as long as we also have the work ethic to get back and the hunger to recover the puck.
“I don’t know that we quite had that in us last year. It’s nice to know you can have these young guys come in and be a different looking team. With more freedom, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect (kids to get). But we had such a good work early on in camp and it’s carried over.”
In the past, newcomers to Boucher’s system would lament for weeks how long it took to be a two-way player. There was a lot of thinking involved.
Am I in the right place?
“I think there’s more reaction now, less feeling it out, and worry about being in the right position,” Smith says.
“We pick off a lot more pucks in their zone, in the middle, when they’re trying to break out because we have a guy to get down and get on their centre man, we’re creating a lot of opportunities that way.”
Smith believes the Senators have the personnel and the system to survive in an up-tempo game.
“I think we were a pretty quick team last year, especially up front, but we’re even faster this year,” Smith says, “with guys like (Alex) Formenton, (Ryan) Dzingel and (Mikkel) Boedker.”
“It’s the way the game is going, you have to keep up.”
Everyone in town calls the Senators more fun to watch with their change in style.
“It’s definitely more fun to play,” Smith says.
Not surprisingly, Borowiecki received a one-game suspension for his elbow to the head of Bruins rookie Urho Vaakanainen, who suffered a concussion on the play.
Borowiecki understood the suspension but remains miffed that Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher didn’t get the attention of the NHL Department of Player Safety when Gallagher drilled Borowiecki into the end boards from behind, with a crosscheck to the neck in Saturday’s game. Gallagher received a two-minute boarding call, illustrating again that the DOPS remains more concerned about direct contact to the head than hits from behind. Another factor: Borowiecki got up from being hit. Vaakanainen was injured on his trip into the goal crease area.
Though he says he had “zero intent to injure” Vaakanainen, Borowiecki has suffered concussion issues in the past and extended an immediate apology at the Bruins bench to him after the incident.
“I’ve been through some really trying, dark times with head injuries . . . I would never want him to experience what I have been through (with head injuries) and I feel terrible about it,” Borowiecki said Thursday.