Senators' season difficult to judge after patching holes for key young players

Nikolaj Ehlers recorded three points including a goal in an effort that saw the Winnipeg Jets beat the Ottawa Senators 4-3.

What do we make of the Ottawa Senators, 72 games deep into an 82-game season?

Well, that depends. 

Depends on how many key players are missing. 

Depends on the level of opposition. 

Depends – did Ottawa get brilliant goaltending to steal a win?

Depends on how many goals Josh Norris can score. 

The first ten days of April were pretty telling on the Senators entire season. They steamrolled a fellow rebuilding team in the Detroit Red Wings with a pair of 5-2 wins, then carried that momentum into Montreal for a wild 6-3 win at the Bell Centre. 

But Tim Stützle got injured that game (even if the Habs and their fans doubted it), and another elite forward, Drake Batherson, got sick (non-Covid). And the Sens went on to lose a tough one at home to Nashville, 3-2, before getting absolutely schooled in New York by the Rangers, 5-1 on Saturday night. 

Unexpectedly, they bounced back strong on Sunday, with Stützle back in the lineup (but not Batherson). And they probably deserved a better fate than the 4-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuck was outstanding.

“Our PK lets us down,” said head coach D.J. Smith, referring to the two Winnipeg power play goals, by Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor. 

And yet, the Sens scored two power play goals themselves, both by Brady Tkachuk and their best players dazzled – especially Tkachuk – with eight shots on goal – and Stützle, who had seven shots and was buzzing; plus Norris, who scored his 32nd goal of the season. 

Tkachuk now has 26, meaning the Sens could have two 30-goal men this season despite a 26-40-6 record for 58 points and second-last place in the Atlantic Division. 

To sum up the month so far, six games, three wins to start, then three losses and the usual question: How good will this team be when they have all their players in the lineup?

We almost forget that ace defenceman Thomas Chabot has been missing for nearly a month and won’t be back this season. Batherson hasn’t been the same since suffering a high ankle sprain on a reckless hit from Buffalo Sabres goaltender Aaron Dell before the All-Star break.

Or, that newly signed defenceman Jake Sanderson has yet to play a game while he recovers from hand surgery. Centre Shane Pinto has also been out of the lineup since early in the season. 

Smith noted that teams will have to contend with a matchup issue when Batherson returns, and can join Stützle to form a legitimate second line behind Norris-Tkachuk-Mathieu Joseph. 

As someone noted on social media, the Senators will get instantly better when they perform addition by subtraction with this roster. Several players in Sunday’s lineup, from Victor Mete to Chris Tierney, Dylan Gambrell and Adam Gaudette will eventually get bumped by the talented young players waiting in the wings. 

Rookie goaltender Mads Sogaard made some big saves against Winnipeg, but also looked at times like a guy playing in his second NHL game. He needs more experience, and there will be some thought to returning him to Belleville, with the B-Sens fighting for a playoff spot. 

Stützle takes high road on low hit

Following Sunday’s loss to the Jets, Stützle spoke for the first time since the controversial hit he received from Nick Suzuki in Montreal last Tuesday. To avoid injury, Stützle spun off the knee on knee, ended up in the corner, hobbled off the ice and then, to the ire of fans in Montreal and players on the Habs bench, proceeded to join Ottawa’s power play unit. 

In the heat of the moment, Stützle was able to finish that game, but his knee tightened up, causing him to miss the next two games before returning to action Sunday. 

Post-game in Montreal, Brendan Gallagher went after Stützle verbally, after going after Stützle physically late in the game. 

“Stützle is a great player,” Gallagher said. “I've played against him for two, three years now. More than half the games we've played against him, he's laid on the ice and he's right back out there next shift. He lays on the ice.”

Stützle says that Suzuki apologized to him for the hit, and Stützle wasn’t going to toss any fuel on the fire started by Gallagher. 

“He (Suzuki) talked to me on the draw, he said, ‘I’m sorry. That’s my bad,’” Stützle said of the hit by Suzuki. “He hit my knee pretty good and. It kind of went bad on me, and that’s why I looked down. I tried to stand up and move it out, and the whole bench was yelling at me – ‘you’ll be fine’ and stuff. So that gave me another push and I showed them I’m going to be fine and played the power play. That’s all I’ve got to say about the situation.” 

Asked to respond to Gallagher’s comment, Stützle said: “I respect him as a player, everyone has his own opinion. They can say what they want. I have my own opinion too. In the end, like I said, I respect him as a player, he’s a veteran player, but that’s all I want to say about him.”

A couple of things here. First, Gallagher’s comments are pretty rich considering his own history with embellishment. The video evidence is out there. Secondly, Stützle did not exaggerate anything on that knee-on-knee, and if he hadn’t spun with the hit, could have been seriously hurt. 

Stützle does have a history of drawing penalties, which isn’t a bad thing, and does fall a lot, something that is going to change when he gets physically stronger. He is just 20 years old. 

Another point to make here is that the kid has a feisty element to his game, likes to mix it up and seems to play better when he brings that edge. So, look for him to be even more physically involved with another summer of growth and development. 

Tkachuk was exuberant in his praise of his young teammate Sunday. 

“Timmy was flying – making players,” Tkachuk said. “He makes smooth little plays that the average person doesn’t make.”

Tkachuk relishes ‘chaos’

Senators captain Brady Tkachuk is so big and strong, he can take over a game at times. It was evident he was trying to will the Sens to victory on Sunday, pumping eight shots at Connor Hellebuyck and scoring twice. Tkachuk credited his teammates for getting pucks to the crease, where No. 7 does his best work. 

“I feel like I am at my best when I’m around the net, causing chaos,” Tkachuk said. “Just be hungry.”

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