With playoff hope gone, Senators still pose a threat to North Division

Nikita Zaitsev scored the game-winning goal as the Ottawa Senators defeated the Winnipeg Jets 2-1.

Even their doubters must admit, this team just won’t quit. That may be the best label to put on the 2021 Ottawa Senators.

They’ve long been out of playoff contention, but the Sens show up night after night as though they’re in the thick of the race. What gives with that?

Is it youthful bliss?

Minus a lot of jaded veterans who know when it’s time to mail it in and save the push for another day, the Senators don’t have the level of cynicism that could persuade a team to mentally pack things up for the year. These young Senators are having fun in their early NHL careers and have no difficulty finding motivation to finish out the season, despite having been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs effective Saturday, with the 3-2 overtime loss in Montreal.

That might have sparked a letdown. Instead, the Senators won their next outing and improved their record down the stretch to 6-1-1 in their past eight games.

Monday’s 2-1 victory over the slumping Winnipeg Jets was a perfect example of Ottawa’s persistence in the face of ongoing resistance. The Jets, fighting to hang onto third place in the North Division, could not have played harder to avoid losing a seventh straight game.

But the Senators, despite losing ace defenceman Thomas Chabot to an injury in the first period, went all blue collar on Winnipeg -- winger Connor Brown scored an early shorthanded goal off a beautiful feed from Nick Paul, and the Senators rode a spectacular 28-save goaltending performance by rookie Filip Gustavsson to hold off the Jets.

Defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who played 25:26 worth of valour in the absence of Chabot, scored the game winner on a blast from the point with a little over a minute to go.

“We have an attack mentality when we get the puck,” Brown said in an intermission interview after scoring his fourth shorthanded goal of the season, tied among the NHL leaders in that category.

That ‘attack mentality’ is all over the ice for these late-season Senators. They block shots, track pucks and kill off penalty after penalty -- the Jets were 0-for-6 on the power play.

The Senators simply relish being spoilers, a bunch of kids having fun as the sun sets on a condensed season. Don’t bother telling them these games are meaningless.

“We’re just going for next season, we know how good of a team we have here,” says Paul, a role player who saw 17:50 of ice time against the Jets, including 7:14 shorthanded. Brown had a TOI of 20:51, with 7:59 on the PK.

The Senators clearly talk about keeping the band together for next year, as much as they can control it.

“All the pieces are in the room,” Paul says. “We don’t want to go out and start trading and doing all that stuff. “We know what’s in the room and this last stretch has shown it.

“We want to build confidence now and hit the ground running next year. We want to start winning games and be the team we are right now.”

Consider it another lesson learned by a young team. What might have been had the Senators not started the season with two wins in their first 15 games. They could have been in playoff contention at this point.

You can bet this will be a topic of discussion when the Senators assemble for training camp next fall.

“We want to go out on a good note,” says head coach D.J. Smith. “It’s not so much the wins and losses. We want to win every game but we want to make sure we are playing the right way so that we clearly know the difference when we do and when we don’t.”

Spoiler tale of the tape

Though not actually in the race, the Senators have had a remarkable amount of influence on who is in the playoff race and in what order they finish. A prime example - Ottawa’s 6-2 record versus the Calgary Flames ruined any shot Calgary might have had of finishing among the top four teams in the North Division.

While the Jets are 6-3 against Ottawa, the Senators have won two of their past three meetings. They meet one last time in Winnipeg Saturday. Monday’s loss was crushing for the Jets. Not only was it their seventh straight, but it came on the same night as Montreal’s comeback 3-2 overtime victory in Toronto. When the ice chips settled, the Canadiens had moved into a tie with the Jets for third place, each team with 57 points on 51 games played.

The Habs might have settled into third place weeks ago if it weren’t for a tough time against the Senators in 2021. Ottawa holds a 5-3-1 edge on Montreal and most of the games have been close and fierce - three have gone to extra time.

And guess what? The Senators have one last chance to hurt the rival Habs, with a final matchup at the Canadian Tire Centre on Wednesday.

A win over Ottawa, either by Montreal on Wednesday or Winnipeg on Saturday will go a long way to determining who gets third place and avoids a matchup against first-place Toronto. (Not that Edmonton is any bargain as a first-round opponent).

By now, the Habs and Jets know that Ottawa won’t be an easy night.

Chabot likely shut down

Neither Chabot nor Josh Brown skated at Tuesday’s practice and afterward, Smith announced that both defencemen will likely be shut down for the rest of the season.

“Both got dinged up (Monday),” Smith said. “We’ll know more later today.”

Neither injury is believed to be serious, but Smith says there is no point in taking any risks with four games left in the season. Chabot, Ottawa’s minutes-eater and leader on the blueline, appeared to favour his left shoulder after being slammed into the end boards by Winnipeg’s Logan Stanley on Monday.

"No Chabby in all areas, we’re not as good,” Smith said.

With Brown also out, Ottawa will have two raw rookies on their blueline versus Montreal Wednesday. Jacob Bernard-Docker, who has played in one NHL game (April 14 vs Winnipeg) gets back in, and Olle Alsing will make his NHL debut. The two were paired together in the third pairing in practice.

Anton Forsberg is expected to start in goal against the Habs.

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