While they may be a step or two short of being labelled the ‘Terrors of the East,’ the Ottawa Senators have done some serious damage in their own region over the past 10 days.
While winning three of five against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, the last-place Senators:
Staged an historic 6-5 comeback win in overtime on the road over the Leafs after trailing 5-1 in the game.
Tore the hearts out of the Canadiens with a two-game series sweep, a 3-2 overtime win Sunday followed by a 5-4 shootout victory Tuesday, at the end of which Montreal fired head coach Claude Julien and assistant Kirk Muller.
What have the Senators done for you lately? Plenty.
Their heart and soul, Brady Tkachuk, put the team on his back on Tuesday with two goals and a fight, while also chipping in with three broken teeth requiring a root canal Wednesday to save them.
“Doc (Bill) Henry is the best in the business for a reason,” said Tkachuk Thursday morning, smiling through the dried blood on his lip, while praising the team dentist.
Did we mention that the Canadiens took a pass on Tkachuk in 2018 to draft Jesperi Kotkaniemi third overall? Tkachuk evidently has not forgotten. He wasn’t going to let a stick to the teeth from Shea Weber slow him down.
With the Canadiens mini-series over, Tkachuk and his teammates can now focus on the incoming Calgary Flames, led by Tkachuk’s older brother, Matthew. The fun starts on Thursday at the Canadian Tire Centre.
This is as close as the Tkachuk boys can get to a head-to-head playoff series, until that day actually happens -- five Ottawa-Calgary dates over the next 11 days (the Senators also drop into Montreal March 2 before heading to Calgary for the final two games of the five).
“Matthew, being the older brother and bigger than me, he beat me up every single day and beat me in every competition,” Brady says. “I had to really work my hardest to try to stick with him . . . he never took his foot off the gas and was always giving it to me. But it helped us out in the long run.”
Hockey is the true beneficiary of these brothers who love each other dearly and battle each other fiercely.
Brady and his teammates look confident enough to do something they have yet to do this season -- beat a western team.
The disparity between Ottawa’s results against their traditional eastern rivals versus western opponents is striking: 6-7-1 vs. Central and Eastern Canada, 0-7 against the West.
All six of the Senators wins have come against regional opponents (for the sake of balance, we have put Winnipeg in the “East/Central” group giving Ottawa three opponents in the West (Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary) and three in the East and Central (Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg).
Against the West, the suddenly red-hot Senators think they can chip away at that 0-7 record and they better -- 12 of their next 14 games are against western opponents. Don’t look now, but Ottawa trails Vancouver by just five points, and the Senators have two games in hand.
Up until now, the western portion of the new North Division has looked at Ottawa and thought one of two things: It’s time to end the slump, or stats game. Perhaps both.
Eastern teams are a little leerier of taking the last-place Senators lightly. Understandably.
Familiar rivals, the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, especially, have felt the sting of Ottawa’s comeuppance, a large part of Ottawa’s 6-7-1 mark against the East. Ottawa has defeated Toronto twice, Montreal three times, and Winnipeg once. The once-soaring Habs left town reeling after consecutive losses to the Senators at the CTC.
Against western opponents, the Senators have been outscored 34-13 or minus-21. Versus the East, Ottawa has a more respectable goal differential of minus-11 with 39 goals for and 50 against.
While there is no simple answer for the dramatic difference, a large part of it can be explained by the Senators' improved play in recent weeks. Four of those western losses, and the ugliest of them, took place in Ottawa’s first road trip, when the team was still figuring out its roster and played tentatively. You may remember that the Canucks were slumping badly until the Senators showed up at their door and promptly fell 7-1, 5-1 and 4-1, restoring Vancouver’s confidence.
The Senators are a different team today. Confidence is a sword in their sheath, having won three of their past five games, young players coming up big in the clutch. Consider that their past eight goals have been scored by players aged 22 or younger, among the best childish outbursts in NHL history. The goal streak does not include shootout goals, but head coach D.J. Smith sent the kids to do a man’s job -- all three shootout attempts were by players 21 and younger versus Montreal -- Tkachuk, 21 (just missed), Tim Stützle, 19 (scored) and Josh Norris, 21 (scored).
Oh, what a difference a month can make in a growing team.
The January Senators were nearly everyone’s chosen date -- with a 1-7-1 record and minus-22 goal differential. Their lone surprise came on opening night, a 5-3 win over visiting Toronto.
Gradually, the Senators pieced together a roster that worked and the younger players flourished. Nearly every game they were at least competitive In the month of February, Ottawa has five victories in a 5-7 stretch and a -10 difference in goals scored.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with East or West, I just think where we are as a team right now (is different),” Smith said, following the shootout win over the Canadiens. “We know what our identity is, it took us a while . . . with no exhibition games and that many new players, and young guys just getting their feet wet.
“We know what we have to do to win, what works for us. Whether it’s a team in the East or the West, we just have to do what we do.”
They will have to do it now without centre Derek Stepan, expected to be gone for the season with a shoulder injury suffered in a harmless looking collision with Jesperi Kotkaniemi Tuesday. Artem Anisimov was added to the roster Thursday to replace Stepan.
Historically, the Senators have always played their eastern opponents tougher. It helps to have a little bit of contempt bred from familiarity.
“Montreal and Toronto, they’ve been rivals with our team and our organization for years now,” says Tkachuk, who no doubt heard about the Montreal playoff wars from his old roommate Mark Stone. “And this year, playing them eight or nine times, those are games you look forward to.”
Even including their expansion years of the early 1990s, Ottawa has an overall winning record against Toronto (66-49-3-10) and more regulation wins than Montreal (68-66-5-10) in head-to-head matchups. They have also been tough on Winnipeg (37-23-2-8).
Against the West, the Senators have losing records across the board as those western road swings have taken a toll. Overall the Senators are 18-23-2-5 vs. Vancouver, 18-20-4-3 against Calgary and 21-22-4-1 vs. Edmonton.
At home, the Senators have dominated the Canucks with a 22-10-9-1 mark. Oddly, Ottawa has a better record in Edmonton versus the Oilers than at the Canadian Tire Centre. The Senators home mark against Edmonton is just 8-12-2-1.
Ottawa might be catching Calgary at a good time. The Flames are currently in a stretch of playing six games in nine days, including two back-to-back situations -- they played in Toronto Wednesday night, losing in overtime.
The Senators have just four games in seven days this week and no back-to-backs.
They are also brimming with newfound confidence.
“We faced a lot of adversity at the start of the year, and we’ve learned from it,” Tkachuk says. “We’re still learning. Some of these games, these tights games, earlier in the season, we would have found ways to lose. But now we’re finding ways to win.
“Top to bottom everybody is putting the work in. We’re such a better team.”
The stage is set for the battle of the Tkachuks. Nearly a week’s worth.