Though their season is less than two weeks old, the Ottawa Senators are already carrying some early regret.
After opening the year with a 2-1 record, with both of their wins on home ice, the Sens proceeded to drop their next three games at the Canadian Tire Centre, including Monday’s wild 7-5, firewagon game against the Washington Capitals.
With his father in the stands, Drake Batherson scored his first career hat trick for the Senators while T.J. Oshie answered back with a hattie of his own, and Alex Ovechkin scored a pair for Washington (‘Russian machine never breaks.’ It does, however, slam Nick Paul into the wall for a non-boarding call).
The loss dropped Ottawa’s record to 2-4-0. With five of their first six games on home ice, Ottawa had a plan to get off to a smart start, to take some of the pressure off a young team facing a difficult road schedule ahead.
Instead, that 2-1 start is ancient history. The home tide turned on Saturday afternoon, as the Senators blew a late 2-0 lead to the New York Rangers and fell 3-2.
In relief of injured starter Matt Murray, Anton Forsberg gave up two goals on three shots in the final five-plus minutes of the Rangers game, then yielded four goals on 16 first-period shots to the Capitals before getting hooked in favour of Filip Gustavsson.
With those two losses, what had been a hopeful homestand turned into a huge missed opportunity.
“For sure,” said head coach D.J. Smith, agreeing with that premise. “I thought we deserved better against San Jose (a 2-1 loss). We certainly deserved better against the Rangers.
“(Monday), we just weren’t ready when the game started. We did a lot of good things, but it’s probably our worst game of all of them.”
The Senators clawed back to a 4-4 tie in the second period, but the Caps capitalized on a breakaway goal by Ovechkin to regain the lead. A third goal by T.J. Oshie with eight seconds left in the second period played the role of a dagger to the heart.
And so the Sens head out for three games on the road, before returning home to face the Vegas Golden Knights on Nov. 4.
“Going on the road is a good chance to get together,” Smith said. “You’re seeing more and more road teams winning games. The tough part, we don’t get the matchups. We’ll look at the line combinations, but if we check for our chances we can play with anybody.”
Murray, who collided with Chris Kreider in the goal crease Saturday and suffered a neck strain, is expected to be on the road trip and could play next week.
Hats off to the Drake
Drake Batherson had a bunch of family and friends from the East Coast at the CTC Monday night, which made it the perfect time to score his first NHL hat trick.
“That was pretty special,” Batherson said. “I had my dad in the stands, too. So to do that in front of them, a couple of my buddies and some relatives were here. It’s a special night. My dad said he lost his hat (in the hat tosses to the ice). So, I have to get him a new one.”
"I had my dad in the stands tonight so to do that in front of him, a couple of my buddies and some relatives were here too, it's a special night. My dad said he lost his hat so I'll have to get him a new one."
More from Drake Batherson after his first NHL hat-trick #GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/IieuP6pbwc
— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) October 26, 2021
Batherson’s first goal was a long shot from the side boards that Ilya Samsonov did not see. It sailed to the top corner. His second was a goal scorer’s goal, Batherson waiting out the goaltender while curling the puck in a delay/drag move and patiently flipping it high over Samsonov. On the third one, Batherson was trying to hit linemate Brady Tkachuk with a pass in the crease but it deflected in before it reached Tkachuk.
Batherson now has four goals on the season and is the early candidate to lead his team in that department. That second goal showcased his skill and confidence.
“The more time you’re around, you get more comfortable,” Batherson said. “And it’s just instinct, honestly. I wasn’t really thinking, I just did what I did there and it was lucky to go in there.”
Actually, that was all skill and nothing to do with luck.
They’re saying “Zuuuuubbbbb!”
Artem Zub is no one-off. The 26-year-old with the winning smile and earnest work ethic, became an instant fan favourite during the pandemic NHL season, with fans watching him on TV. That he spoke little English and seemed inaccessible only heightened his cult following in Ottawa.
And that popularity has carried over to this season, as fans in the CTC have taken to calling “Zuuubbb!” as soon as he touches the puck. The first time he heard those low groans, Zub must have wondered why he was getting booed. Luckily, his teammates quickly explained to the winsome Russian that fans were saluting “Zuuuuuuubbb!” Not yelling “Boooooooo!”
“It’s just fun, and it’s good for me,” Zub said, of the fan salute, as he spoke to reporters on Sunday.
— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) October 24, 2021
In his second season with the Senators, the hockey club is getting a true sense of just how good a defenceman they have in Zub, a “free player,” as Smith refers to this pickup from the KHL. Last year, Zub was a defensive rock on the second pairing -- although he sat out the first several games as the coaching staff tried to judge his abilities based on practice, with no pre-season games.
This season Zub is on the first pair with Thomas Chabot and is getting an opportunity to showcase his offensive talents, including a spot on the second power-play unit.
On Monday, Chabot and Zub had their best game of the season. Unfortunately it came on a night when the other pairings (Josh Brown and Victor Mete; Nikita Zaitsev and Nick Holden) had a terrible time. Brown and Zaitsev both made plays that led directly to goals. Brown finished with four giveaways.
“They were so much better than any other pair, it wasn’t close,” Smith said of Chabot-Zub. “You don’t want to play them as much as you play them, but we have three days off between games and every time those two are out there we have the puck and are in the offensive zone. I thought the other pairs certainly struggled.”
Chabot played 29:59 and Zub 27:43 while no other defenceman reached the 20-minute mark in TOI.
Over the weekend, Smith was raving about Zub’s progress, especially on the offensive side.
“He’s got a bomb back there, and he can make plays,” Smith says. “I don’t think he’s been on a power play in a while, so it’s taken him a while to get going, but he’s firing that thing pretty good. We think he can do a bit of everything. He’s a really good find.
“For a free player to be playing in your top pair, and now on the power play and penalty kill is huge for us.”
Defensively, Zub makes the right play every time, it seems. At five-on-five, Zub is noticeably getting in on the attack, as a number of forays to the crease end up with the sight of No. 2
“I think he’s just more comfortable,” Smith says. “And also the line he is playing with. He’s with the Norris line a lot and they have the puck a little more. We want our D to be active and join the rush. As long as it’s responsible.”
Zub’s English has improved dramatically in a year. He no longer requires a translator and his smile radiates through any language barrier.
“He understands hockey,” Smith says, “and that makes it a heck of a lot easier.”
Zub says he is thriving on the extra minutes.
“When I have big ice time, I play better, I think,” Zub says.
Grambell not a gamble
Injuries to centres Colin White and Shane Pinto convinced GM Pierre Dorion to get some help down the middle, and he did that on Sunday by picking up centre Dylan Grambell from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2022 seventh-round draft pick. That pick originally belonged to the Sharks and came to Ottawa in the trade for defenceman Christian Jaros.
Grambell, likely arriving in Ottawa by Wednesday, is expected to join the Senators on their upcoming week-long road trip. The 25-year-old has 10 goals and 23 points in 110 NHL games.
Smith has said he thinks Grambell is a solid defensive centre and capable of taking on a bottom-six role.
Hometown lap for Lapierre
Le Droit, the French-language newspaper in Ottawa and Gatineau, had three reporters on hand for Monday’s game to chronicle both the game and the hometown debut of Gatineau’s Hendrix Lapierre, who played fourth-line centre for the Capitals.
The rookie Lapierre, 19, is an inspiring story -- cracking the Capitals lineup out of camp despite missing most of his 2020-21 QMJHL season due to COVID-19 issues. A spinal injury, originally diagnosed as a series of concussions, also limited Lapierre’s pre-draft playing time and had scouts wondering if he would be able to play pro hockey.
Whether Lapierre sticks with Washington or returns to Chicoutimi, he has already registered a victory. Lapierre played a little under eight minutes and had one shot on goal.
Monday’s game drew a crowd of 11,387 as Ottawa continues to struggle at the gate. After five home games, the Senators have an average crowd of 10,954. Only the Buffalo Sabres, at 7,790 have a lower average attendance.