Senators hope fans can return to arena for hectic February

Ottawa Senators forward Brady Tkachuk talks about the weird goal that was scored on his team by the Buffalo Sabres Mark Jankowski and how he talked to the referees immediately afterwards but ultimately supported their decision.

The Ottawa Senators once had a nearly blank month of February, with the NHL scheduled to take part in the Beijing Olympics.

February is blank no more. With the revised NHL schedule released Wednesday, Ottawa will play 12 times in February, with nine of those games at home.

The Sens -- and their fans -- will be busy, as the team plays every other night from now until April 29: 50 games in 100 days.

In all, the NHL revised 15 Senators games, due to COVID-19 outbreaks or arena postponements, and those games are sprinkled throughout February, March and April. Ten of the revised games take place in February, two are in March and three in April.

The Senators will play 15 games in March and 16 games in April. The compressed schedule has resulted in 10 back-to-back situations, beginning with a Jan. 31 home date against Edmonton and a Feb. 1 game in Long Island against the New York Islanders.

Head coach D.J. Smith, speaking before the Senators left Wednesday for a Thursday date in Pittsburgh against the Penguins, said that he had taken a peek at the revisions. While admitting that the schedule would be busy, he was more concerned about getting fans back into the Canadian Tire Centre to witness those postponed games. While dealing with the Omicron variant, the Ontario government has kept fans out of the two NHL rinks in the province since the start of 2022.

On Tuesday, the Senators played the Buffalo Sabres in Ottawa’s first home date since Dec. 11, losing 3-1 in an empty arena.

“I think there’s nine home games (in February) and hopefully the fans are back for those,” Smith said. “You could just see (Tuesday) that it’s so weird after coming in from Calgary and Edmonton that had even half a building . . . . the advantage of playing at home certainly isn’t the same (without fans).”

Smith said the players appreciate the fans in the rink, even on the road, wearing enemy colours.

“There’s so much more energy with fans -- whether they are for or against you,” Smith said.

The province is expected to ease some COVID restrictions later this week, and those changes could include bringing fans back into NHL games at Toronto and Ottawa.

As an organization, the Senators hope the doors re-open to fans by February as they don’t have as many home dates in any one month thereafter. Only six of their 15 March dates are at home and seven of the 16 April dates.

“It would be awesome to play in front of fans again,” said Senators winger Drake Batherson. “Hopefully, soon enough.”

Murray won’t face the Penguins

The idea of goaltender Matt Murray getting on a roll after recording wins in Calgary and Edmonton last week sure ended with a thud. Murray, who has twice been on the COVID protocol list this season, had to miss the Sabres game due to a non-COVID illness. Now, it’s expected he won’t be able to face his former Pittsburgh Penguins team Thursday, as Murray was not well enough to fly with the team.

Smith said Murray could join the team on the trip, which proceeds to Washington on Saturday and Columbus on Sunday. Expected to be Ottawa’s first-string goaltender, Murray has appeared in just 36 of the team’s 88 games played since he became a Senator prior to the 2020-21 season.

“I know he wanted to play against Pittsburgh,” Smith said. “There’s nothing you can do. Guys get sick. Things happen.”

Particularly to Murray. Filip Gustavsson will make the trip to share duties with Anton Forsberg.

That ‘weird’ winning goal

Long after Ottawa’s 3-1 loss to Buffalo, media, fans and players were talking about the crazy sequence that led to the winning goal -- following a melee at the Ottawa bench, with several players on both teams tied up.

Senators defenceman Erik Brannstrom laid out Kyle Okposo with a hit, which led to Brannstrom getting dumped, and then a scrum, which included officials tied up with players. And yet, no one blew the whistle, play ensued and Mark Jankowski proceeded to strip Josh Brown of the puck and skate up ice to score on Forsberg.

“That was a weird sequence,” said forward Drake Batherson, who scored the lone goal for the Senators. “I didn’t see the goal. I saw the pile, I look up and the guy (Jankowski) is celebrating. The refs were in there, holding our guys . . . but it’s the way she goes.”

Someone should have blown the whistle. But the Senators should also have had a big enough lead at that point that it didn’t matter. The Sens outshot the Sabres 44-31 and made a hero out of ECHL veteran goalie Michael Houser. Ottawa could not capitalize on a late power play. The Sabres added an empty-net goal.

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