There is a lot to like about this group of Ottawa Senators, and many of the reasons were on display in Washington on a Super Bowl Sunday afternoon.
This was a game that was easy to pencil in as a loss beforehand. The Senators, missing their top two offensive players (Drake Batherson and Josh Norris), were playing their fifth game in seven days. They were coming off a loss against Boston the day before and hadn’t scored since Tuesday against Carolina.
With no realistic playoff expectations in sight, they could have mailed this one in and hustled to the charter plane to get home for the Super Bowl broadcast.
Except that the Sens were having none of that. The flight home was a happy ride following a 4-1 upset of the Capitals, sparked by an early shorthanded goal from Alex Formenton, his third of the season.
Head coach D.J. Smith called the victory “gutsy.”
Connor Brown chose “resilient.”
For fans of the team, it was just the latest example of why they like this team so much. They have fun, play hard, they play for each other, regardless of the schedule they face or the score of the game they’re in.
The “buy-in” for Smith is as good as any team’s in the league, and that will mean even more when the Senators have a bit more depth and their youngest stars get healthy again and mature.
Showing the way on Sunday were three players who played a “big boy game,” as Smith put it – Brown, Nick Paul and captain Brady Tkachuk.
Brown, still playing with a plastic guard to protect his healing broken jaw, played 25:41, a TOI that is off the charts for him.
Tkachuk and Brown both scored big goals and Paul stepped in to fight Washington’s Tom Wilson after a big hit on Thomas Chabot, who left the game for precautionary reasons but is thought to be okay. Alex Formenton was also injured on a blindside hit to the head from Garnet Hathaway, a hit that Smith said he “didn’t like.”
The Senators were off on Monday and it remains to be seen if Chabot and Formenton are fine to play against the visiting St. Louis Blues Tuesday.
Smith added that Paul didn’t need to go after one of the league’s toughest players, Wilson, following what was actually a clean, hard hit on Chabot, Ottawa’s top defenceman. But he appreciated the gesture and the courage.
“Pauly is a heart and soul guy here and has been,” Smith said. “He continues to do great things for us.”
A pending unrestricted free agent, Paul is going to be in play at the deadline if the Senators don’t sign him first. His value on the market, and in contract negotiations, continues to rise.
Certainly, Brown was quick to pump the big man’s tires.
“He’s a world-class two-way forward,” said Brown, who was a teammate and linemate of Paul for Canada at the World Championships last summer. The pair combined on the ‘golden goal.’
Brown points out that because Paul spent a lot of time in the minors early in his career, he has played just 212 NHL games. As a result, though Paul turns 27 in March, he still has upside.
“He’s getting better,” Brown says. “Every week. Every game.”
Brown’s own game has grown since leaving the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 2019 trade.
“Four years ago, I scored eight goals,” Brown said, following the Sens win on Sunday. “I didn’t know where my career was headed.”
Ottawa turned out to be a fresh start, with a bigger role on a young team. Brown, 28, has responded with the same heart and hustle he showed in Toronto, but with higher production based on his playing time and being relied upon with the Sens.
He explained his demonstrative goal celebration as a combination of the intensity of the game and relief after hitting a goalpost against Boston on Saturday, and recently missing more than three weeks with a broken jaw. With a goal and assist, Brown recorded career points No. 200 and 201.
That he was part of a winning week – three wins, two losses – in five games in seven days, was extremely rewarding.
“I can only speak for myself, but in this league it’s not easy to play five-in-seven,” Brown said. “Especially teams like Boston and Pittsburgh, Washington - these teams do it right, they play at a high pace and they don’t make it easy on you. They make you win every battle.
“You can’t hide out there. There’s not floating around. The boys battled this week.”
Smith, who loves nothing more than seeing his team get physically engaged in a game, was clearly proud of his group, coming off shutouts by the Penguins and Bruins in the previous three days.
“Gutsy effort,” Smith said. “We got some timely goals early and it gave us some confidence and Forsy (Anton Forsberg) was outstanding. There were a lot of really good efforts.
“It was a tough back to back. We were better today than we were yesterday. So, well done.”
For the first time all season, the Senators are getting exceptional goaltending from not one, but two, goalies.
The February numbers to date: Forsberg – 2-1-0, 2.67 goals-against and .926 save percentage.
Matt Murray – 1-2-0, 1.37 goals-against and .964 save percentage. Keep in mind that the Senators failed to score in two of their games this past week, yet Murray kept them in those games right to the end.
Tkachuk, who continues to call the goalies “our best players,” seemed to relish the style of play in D.C., which he thought helped get his team engaged.
“It was physical and it was fast,” Tkachuk said. “And those are the kinds of games our team thrives off. It was a fun game to be a part of.”
After Paul was awarded the team’s ‘Tour de France helmet award,’ in the dressing room, Tkachuk could be heard telling his teammates they had “five minutes” to clear out to get on the flight so they could catch the Super Bowl.
Just another reason fans love this team. They show their human side. Who didn’t want to hustle home on Sunday in time to see the big football game on TV?