The Ottawa Senators are prisoners in their own town.
They can’t practice, let alone go out. It’s rink/home. If they even live at home. Many don't right now, to protect their families.
While the rest of the NHL more or less eases into post-pandemic life, the Senators have turned back the clock. The lockdown bubble is back. A young, growing Ottawa team is trying to perform that impossible gymnastic exercise of drawing closer together while remaining physically apart. They are masked and weary.
Their dressing room has been cut in half, spaces between stalls doubled to allow distancing and players moved out to other rooms to reduce numbers.
Tested multiple times daily, players are showing positive COVID-19 tests and then not -- such that over the past several days, forward Drake Batherson and defenceman Nikita Zaitsev were both placed on the COVID-19 protocols list, then removed, only to be put back on again.
Batherson, with a boatload of family and friends here from Nova Scotia to see his game against Pittsburgh on Saturday, was put on the list in the morning, then removed in the afternoon, and was the Hockey Night In Canada hero with a career-high four-point night in a 6-3 victory that ended a six-game losing streak.
The next day, Batherson, Ottawa’s scoring leader and best forward, was put back on the protocols list and the Sens got routed 4-0 by Calgary.
False positives and true positives are getting to be a collective negative.
“Everyday there’s something unexpected,” Senators captain Brady Tkachuk says. “So, of course it kind of wears on you mentally.”
With 10 Ottawa players and assistant coach Jack Capuano testing positive over the past 10 days, Sens players are living in fear that they’re up next. How could they not think that?
“You’re almost crossing your fingers every single day hoping that you get through with a negative (test),” said veteran defenceman Michael Del Zotto. “It is a learning experience, with the different tests we’re doing, and trying to keep everyone safe, not just the players but their families and staff as well. It’s a great opportunity for guys to learn the mental side of the game.”
With 13 years in the league, Del Zotto says he is trying to help emergency callups like D-men Lassi Thomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker. Thomson has stepped in seamlessly in his first three NHL games, but there are little pointers and supportive comments that can be vital for a raw rookie. Yet, Tkachuk notes that veterans and rookies are often in different dressing rooms, so they can’t even talk during intermission about little mistakes made or so much as say, “don’t worry about that.”
How impressive have newcomers like Thomson, Bernard-Docker and winger Egor Sokolov been, jumping into the lineup without the benefit of off-day practices? This non-playoff team, spiralling at 4-10-1 to open the season, is in playoff mode, as far as no practices between games.
Hockey players are proudly stoic. They trot out their “next man up” lines and “no excuses.”
But this group will be relieved that the NHL finally stepped in to postpone all three games this week on the Senators calendar.
On Monday, the league dropped the Senators' Tuesday game in New Jersey, the Thursday game against the Nashville Predators at the Canadian Tire Centre, and Saturday’s matinee versus the New Rangers at the CTC. For now, the expectation is that the Senators will resume action on Nov. 22 in Colorado against the Avalanche.
It took an extreme situation to bring about the postponements. With the COVID-19 cases now in double figures in Ottawa, the AHL Belleville Senators are tapped dry to the point they are virtually signing people off the street to assemble a roster there.
This will give the Senators a chance to get some players healthy this week and back on the ice, although there will likely be no practice sessions for the next few days.
While the COVID-19 cases ran through a team like the San Jose Sharks (seven cases) rather quickly, the Ottawa situation is lingering, protracted.
“Mentally, players don’t know if they’re in (a lineup) or not in -- they’re waiting on the test and it’s a lot of distraction,” says head coach D.J. Smith. “You know, it’s hard enough to win in the National Hockey League with no distractions, no noise and a healthy group, let alone all the distractions that go with the testing and the last-minute pullouts.
“It’s the NHL, we have to try to find ways to win. (Sunday) was a tough one for us.”
New captain Tkachuk, just 22, is putting up a brave front, however chaotic the background scenes may be.
“It’s just such a weird situation right now,” Tkachuk says. “We’ve just got to get through it and make sure everybody’s healthy and doing your part to stop this spread.”
Loss of Pinto hurts
Just as in life, “no good deed goes unpunished,” it can seem, for every bright spot, a dark one emerges for the Senators. With Batherson cleared to play on Saturday, and centre Shane Pinto, 21, finally back from his shoulder injury, it felt as though the Senators were turning a corner on the crisis.
But as Pinto bent low, clutching his right shoulder following a first period faceoff against Pittsburgh, it represented a massive blow to a roster already thin down at centre. Still a rookie, Pinto has slid right into a second line centre role with the Senators, but now could require surgery to repair the shoulder.
“He commanded the ice in the middle,” Smith said. “The way he controlled the game when he was out there, it’s a huge loss for us.”
With Batherson added to the protocols list on Sunday, the Senators are missing several key forwards -- Connor Brown, Batherson, Pinto, Alex Formenton, Colin White -- and a lot of experience on defence -- Zaitsev, Josh Brown, Nick Holden, plus young defencemen Victor Mete (COVID-19) and Erik Brannstrom (broken hand).
It’s a small sample size, but the smooth, smart play of Thomson has been one of the bright spots for Ottawa in a rough stretch. In just his third game, Thomson vaulted up to the top pair with Thomas Chabot, playing 20-plus minutes. Thomson played even more than that in his NHL debut Thursday. While he was minus-three on Sunday, the Flames were scoring on Anton Forsberg from outside and with deflections.
Before the game, Smith admitted it is a bonus to get a sneak preview on some of Ottawa’s upcoming talent.
“You know, what I saw from him last year at the end of the year when I watched AHL games was just how good his feet are, his gap,” Smith says. “He snaps the puck hard. The NHL is a game of inches and things happen quick. When D snap the puck you are able to beat coverage and what-have-you.
“The thing I’ve been impressed with is his ability to defend so far. Boxing out, speed to pucks. Really good stick. A lot of young kids have offensive ability to make plays, but their ability to defend is what gets them in the league sooner than later and he’s been really good.”
Is it just me, or does Thomson remind anyone of a young Sami Salo? Like Salo, Thomson has a strong shot, plays a smooth, effortless game and makes smart plays.
Gustavsson owns net
The lone goaltender on the COVID-19 list is starter Matt Murray. In his absence, Filip Gustavsson continues to be a rock for the Sens. Gustavsson made several big saves early against the Penguins Saturday, including during a 5-on-3 advantage, to give his team a chance to get the offence going. On Thursday, Gustavsson deserved better in a 2-0 loss, with both L.A. Kings goals coming on deflections. Anton Forsberg was not great on Sunday so Gustavsson could be leaned on more when the team returns to the ice.
Considering the Sens overall record, Gustavsson’s stats line is remarkable: 3-3-1, 3.01 goals against and .915 save percentage.