Senators shut down until after holiday break, hoping a fresh start will follow

Ottawa Senators' Chris Tierney (71), bottom right, celebrates his second goal against the Dallas Stars as he skate past the bench with teammates while fans look on from the stands during second period NHL action in Ottawa on Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

If we could summarize the reaction to the Ottawa Senators taking another COVID-19-related break before the scheduled Christmas holiday break:

We all need a break from the Omicron variant.

Though they are hardly alone in being impacted by coronavirus, the Senators have been shut down by COVID-19 for a second time this season. In November, it was the outbreak within the organization that saw ten players and a coach sidelined with positive tests, finally resulting in the postponement of three games during the week of Nov. 15-21.

Now, it is the broader concern of widespread NHL outbreaks of the Omicron variant that caused the league to shut down a massive number of games this week, including the Senators' scheduled home ice matchups with Boston (Dec. 19), St. Louis (Dec. 21) and Carolina (Dec. 23).

The Dec. 27 game at the Canadian Tire Centre versus Washington is still on the board for now, but is subject to change, along with so much in our daily lives at the moment.

There was some thought to having the Blues, who were in Canada playing the Winnipeg Jets over the weekend, stay in the country to play Ottawa Tuesday. But with the St. Louis-Toronto matchup (Dec. 23) already dropped because of an outbreak with the Maple Leafs, it made sense for the Blues to head back home for an early Christmas break.

Speaking on Saturday night, following the Senators' 4-3 loss in overtime to the Flyers, Sens captain Brady Tkachuk said the team was prepared for any eventuality.

“If it gets shut down, then it’s time to regroup mentally and spend the holidays with family and try to be as safe as you can,” Tkachuk said, with a message for all to heed.

A day later, the NHL made it official and shut down all Ottawa games prior to Dec. 27.

Assistant Davis Payne tests positive

The Senators have had few event-free trips to the U.S. this season. It was after a swing through Dallas, Chicago and Minnesota that Ottawa players first tested positive in late October and early November. Then, during a trip to Boston Nov. 9, defencemen Victor Mete and Josh Brown experienced positive tests and had to remain behind, driving across the border on their own to return to Ottawa. Similarly, on last week’s swing through Florida and Philadelphia, the Senators had to leave without one of their own – this time, assistant coach Davis Payne.

Payne was not behind the bench for the Saturday evening game in Philly and returned home on his own to quarantine following a positive COVID-19 test. On Monday, the Senators officially placed him on the COVID-19 protocol list.

Belleville Sens rocked

Like COVID-19 variants, hockey players travel. A lot. And the combination can result in bizarre circumstances.

Consider the case of Senators goaltender Matt Murray and defenceman Michael Del Zotto. Both were with the Senators during the November outbreak. In fact, Murray tested positive for COVID-19, and his lingering symptoms and lack of energy were partly responsible for him getting waived to Belleville after just one post-COVID appearance, a 6-3 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 24. Then, Murray and Del Zotto were in the thick of it last week with a Belleville Senators team that has been hit with multiple COVID cases.

Belleville head coach Troy Mann told Le Droit newspaper’s Marc Brassard on Sunday that as many as 18 players and staff had tested positive for COVID-19. Belleville had three games cancelled – on the road against Syracuse and Lehigh Valley and at home to Providence. The B-Sens have suspended all team activity until at least Dec. 26.

Fortunately, Murray, by virtue of already having recently recovered from Covid, was allowed to return home to Ottawa to quarantine with his family. This season, Murray has seen action in just two AHL games and six NHL games. Murray’s B-Sens numbers: a 1-1 record, 2.55 goals-against and .915 save percentage.

Decent road trip

Head coach D.J. Smith had said numerous times that this final road trip of 2021 – with two games in Florida and one in Philadelphia, would be a serious test for his improving team. And it was. After going 1-11 for the month of November, the Senators are 5-3-1 for the month of December.

But when the ice chips had settled, Smith and his players had to be wondering what might have been, considering the roadie started with an 8-2 romp over the Panthers and then a tight 2-1 loss in Tampa Bay against the Lightning. With an opportunity to take two of three, Ottawa fell behind early to the Flyers before rallying and ultimately losing in overtime on a bad bounce – a clearing play by Thomas Chabot hitting a stanchion and giving the Flyers the OT win. And so the Sens returned home with three points from the three games.

After what was one of the Senators' most entertaining games of the season, the 4-3 OT loss in Philly, Smith termed it a “heck of an effort” and perhaps a new sense of what it takes to win games for his young team.

“I thought we could’ve had a better result in Tampa, we could have had better (in Philly) and we played really well in Florida,” Smith said.

His captain concurred.

“We had the one goal in Tampa, then hit a couple of posts, we were right there in that game,” said Tkachuk. “Same thing (vs. the Flyers). Ideally, we would go 3-0 on this road trip, but we are getting there and we are trending in the right direction.”

Like many NHL teams, the Senators have a lot more to worry about than the way they are playing. In fact, if the schedule can resume on time, and players can stay healthy and COVID-free, Ottawa is feeling good about returning to its newfound form in the New Year.

Until then, a peaceful holiday week is in order.

Editor's Note: The COVID-19 situation, in the NHL and around the world, is constantly evolving. Readers in Canada can consult the country's public health website for the latest.

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