After rough first quarter, are Senators poised to make waves in the Atlantic?

Ottawa Senators left wing Brady Tkachuk, second from left, smiles after scoring a goal against the Los Angeles Kings during the first period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP)

Momentum is a thing in hockey.

And not just in terms of flow of play in a particular game. There can be momentum in a schedule and a team’s play from night to night.

The Ottawa Senators, 21 games deep into an 82-game schedule, hope to capitalize on a strong finish to their western U.S. swing just as they hit the meatiest part of their first half of the season.

At (roughly) the quarter mark of the season, the Senators are 8-12-1. By the end of Wednesday’s home game against the New York Rangers, Ottawa will have played its first 22 games over a leisurely pace of 49 days, with no back-to-back games. But starting with Friday’s rematch with the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, the Sens will have 16 games in 30 days (Dec. 2-Jan. 1), including three back-to-back situations.

No big deal, says Senators head coach D.J. Smith.

“Most teams are playing every other day – you’re probably going to need a few more guys, injuries may happen,” he said. “But there’s no excuses. … Be ready when the game starts.”

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Where Senators are relative to expectations

Not since 2017 have there been such high expectations for the Senators. Although no one was suggesting this was a playoff team, end of discussion, there was a feeling that for the first time in Smith’s tenure as coach the Senators would be in the hunt. GM Pierre Dorion, who acquired forwards Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat, plus goaltender Cam Talbot over the summer, put a stamp on expectations with his comment about playing “meaningful games” all season long.

By that bar, having eight victories in 22 games has to register as a disappointment, especially when the team vowed to guard against another poor start, which had been its downfall the previous three seasons. And yet, the underlying numbers are not terrible. With a few more opportunistic moments here or a save there, Ottawa might be knocking on the door of the top four instead of trying to crawl out of the Atlantic Division basement.

For all their defensive sins to this point, the Senators have allowed fewer goals than three of the teams directly ahead of them in the division – Florida, Montreal and Buffalo. The Sens are just two points behind the Sabres and six behind the Habs. There is time to get closer to those preseason expectations.

Top-six forwards: A

On paper, as in real life, the top six forwards are the strength of this team. From captain Brady Tkachuk, on pace for nearly 100 points, through to Giroux, Tim Stützle and Alex DeBrincat, this is the group that sets the tone. Tkachuk has seriously upped his offensive game. Stützle sometimes tries to do too much, but is better than a point-per-game player as a 20-year-old and has recently shown signs of maturity in his defensive game. Giroux has simply met or exceeded every expectation for him when he was signed as a free agent. With nine goals, he is tied with Tkachuk for the team lead and is a calming presence on the bench for a young team.

“He’s been an absolutely great veteran to have for these kids,” Smith said. “He never shows negative emotion, he’s learned body language … all the things you want kids to learn when things aren’t going right.”

DeBrincat, thought to be limited to sniper duty, has really impressed with his overall game. Smith said the little winger was the leader against Los Angeles Sunday on the coach’s “tracking clips” (key backchecking plays) he collects to show the players. It’s also been striking how relaxed DeBrincat has been through scoring slumps, smiling, not smashing a stick, when he gets robbed of a chance. The goals are starting to flow. He has six. And it feels as though a surge is coming soon.

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Bottom-six forwards: B-

Ottawa’s best line in the preseason was the trio of Shane Pinto, Tyler Motte and Mathieu Joseph. Even before top centre Josh Norris injured his shoulder, the third line was struggling with consistency. With Norris down, Pinto popped in and out of second line duty, and is back there now between DeBrincat and Drake Batherson. That has left PTO signee Derick Brassard as the centre between Motte and Joseph, and Brassard has filled in well. Motte and Joseph have had their ups and downs. The fourth line of Mark Kastelic, Austin Watson and Parker Kelly have shown well in spots, at their best when they bring physical energy to a game that needs a spark.

Defence: C+

Some might call me generous with this grade, considering the team has exhibited some of the same coverage issues that have plagued it in recent seasons. Maybe it’s recency bias, but I like the way the D-corps has evolved. Thomas Chabot, back from his concussion and early-season hiccups, is rested and appears more confident. Artem Zub, a defensive pillar, is back in the swing of things after missing several games with an injury. And with Jake Sanderson, arguably the best rookie defenceman in the league, better supported now that Chabot and Zub are healthy, it feels as though the group is finally slotted perfectly. Nikita Zaitsev is in the AHL and not part of the top six, and Travis Hamonic and Nick Holden have been fine, as long as they don’t have to play heavy minutes. There is a good chance the defence will be better in the latter portion of the season, especially if Dorion is able to add some experience via trade.

Goaltending: C

Here’s another grade that could jump appreciably if Talbot is able to continue the form he showed in Los Angeles Sunday in a 3-2 OT victory. Talbot was pulled as recently as the San Jose game (Nov. 21) and clearly wanted to atone for it. Injured through most of training camp and the preseason, Talbot is starting to find his game after 10 appearances. There is nothing wrong with his 2.51 goals-against and .919 save percentage. He would like to improve on the 3-5-0 record. I believe he will.

Anton Forsberg, considered a 1B to Talbot’s 1A in preseason, has not had the same success he enjoyed last season when he earned himself a three-year, $8.25-million contract while rescuing the team in Matt Murray’s absence. To be fair, Forsberg has had two separate injury issues that have hurt his momentum. Expect him to be better as the season progresses.

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THE big question for the next quarter

Can the Senators get back in the mix and contend for a playoff spot? Those two victories in Southern California provide a glimmer of hope. Suddenly, the Sens have a chance to get out of the division basement, to make some real noise. Other teams have gone on streaks, good and bad. This is the time for Ottawa to put a run together, during a 17-game stretch to New Years’ Day. It begins with two games against a struggling Rangers team. The Sens’ players and staff say the belief is there, that the Sens have the talent to play with anyone, so long as they cash in on chances and finish games efficiently.

Giroux said he feels the team has grown in maturity as a group.

“We know how we want to play in the third (period), when the game is tight,” Giroux said.

Likewise, Smith is seeing more discipline with a game on the line.

“I think we’ve learned a lot of lessons,” Smith said. “Early on, we threw the puck away, shot ourselves in the foot. … There’s a completely different mentality for the importance of points, and how to close games out. There’s definitely a different mindset.”

There’s no time like the present to show it.

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