Instead of rust, Senators exhibit joy and relief in memorable return to action

Nick Paul had a pair of goals as the Ottawa Senators defeated the Calgary Flames 4-1.

There were so many firsts for the Ottawa Senators in their 4-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Thursday, it’s hard to know where to begin.

• First – it was the Senators' initial victory of 2022, in just their second game of the calendar year.

• Ottawa scored its first goal of 2022.

Matt Murray, the beleaguered well-paid goaltender, recorded his first win of the season.

Nick Paul, who normally ‘does it all,’ but this season has struggled to find his form, had his first two-goal game of the season, and very nearly had a hat-trick.

In the Senators' first game since Jan. 1, a 6-0 blowout in Toronto, they figured out how to prepare for a match without really knowing when that game would be. Before that New Years date, Ottawa hadn’t played since Dec. 18 in Philadelphia.

This western swing was supposed to start with a game in Vancouver on Jan. 8 and then Edmonton on Jan. 10. Both were postponed, leaving the Sens to practice all week in Alberta, leading up to Thursday at the Scotiabank Saddledome. The Oilers game will be made up Saturday night.

Instead of rust, the Senators exhibited a sense of joy and relief to finally be playing. After an early goal by Paul that surprised Flames goaltender Jacob Markstrom, the Senators settled in for a very tidy road win, with a few key saves by Murray, especially in the first period.

The Senators clearly won the hunger game over Calgary.

“We had good battles in practice and that work ethic was still there (against the Flames),” Paul said. “It paid off.”

“We’ve been working our ass off in practice,” added winger Connor Brown. “It’s not easy to be preparing for games and getting them cancelled game after game. It takes a lot of mental toughness. I think we learned from that Toronto game.”

Brown set up Paul’s second goal in the first period, which Paul finished on a gorgeous backhand deke. It was mildly reminiscent of the overtime goal scored by Paul from Brown in Canada’s gold medal win at the 2021 world championships.

“Pauly was all over the ice, he was dancing,” Brown said. “When the big boy is feeling it, you get him the puck.”

It was a big night for Paul, a veteran on an expiring contract, filling in for No. 2 centre Tim Stützle who missed the game while on the COVID-19 protocol list. The line of Paul at centre, with Brown and Alex Formenton on the wings, was easily Ottawa’s best. They finished with seven points as a group. Brown capped off the night with a third-period breakaway goal on a fierce burst of speed with a neat five-hole finish.

Drake Batherson, named the Senators' only All-Star representative earlier in the day, scored the Senators’ other goal, from a ridiculously sharp angle. He banked the puck in off Markstrom’s mask and into the top corner, or “pocky” Batherson called it while mic'd up for practice this week.

If it was a big night for Paul, it was massive for Murray, the $6.25M goalie who came into the game with an 0-6-0 record, a stint in the minors and two trips to the Covid protocol list – one while with Ottawa, the other with AHL Belleville.

“Matt Murray was really good, he saw the puck all night and he just looked really confident,” said head coach D.J. Smith, after bursting into the room to present Murray with the player of the game award.

Murray was cool under fire, making 27 saves for his first win. He was just as cool afterward, implying it was just a matter of time before his hard work paid off.

Murray said that while he personally felt good, he has felt fine all year (discounting a couple of injuries and Covid quarantines, that is).

“It was good to get the result,” he said. “I’ve been battling and not getting results. It felt good for sure.”

The players in front of Murray wanted that win for him, especially after not supporting Murray in the 6-0 blowout by the Leafs. This time, the effort was there, and the early goal by Paul was critical to get some confidence back.

“When he has that energy,” Paul said of Murray, “we want to play for him.”

“He’s a world-class goalie and he’s starting to find his form,” Brown added.

Murray was thrilled by the support he received, tipping a cap to defencemen who cleared pucks and “didn’t force anything.” Erik Brannstrom had a strong outing. Rookie Jacob Bernard-Docker survived a couple of hiccups in a game played in front of a lot of family and friends.

“We were pretty dialled in all night,” Murray said. “That was probably one of the best games we’ve played all year.”

Smith concurred.

“We had legs tonight for sure. We were jumping, we were shooting, we were on pucks, we were above, we didn’t take a lot of penalties and let their top-end guys get into the game,” Smith said. “And when we did make mistakes, Murr was there to save it.”

All in all, the Senators provided their fans with a game that was worth waiting for – just their second game since mid-December. Not knowing how their conditioning might be, they focused on some strong early shifts and got into the mix quickly.

“As a group we really stuck together,” Paul said. “We just knew the first two shifts, we had to play as hard as we could and take it from there,” said Paul. “It was a pretty good outcome.”

No argument there, except from the Flames.

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