The texts and emails are arriving like Christmas cards.
They’re not Santa related.
Who are these guys?
Am I dreaming this?
Maybe the rebuild really is over, lol.
The Ottawa Senators didn’t so much flip the page on November of the 2021 calendar, it was more like they flipped a switch. Technically, it came after the 6-2 loss on home ice to the Vancouver Canucks on Dec. 1. In Ottawa, this day is now referred to as ‘rock bottom.’
Rather than accepting just another loss, to go with the 1-11 November record and the 4-15-1 mark overall, the Senators held a players meeting in Raleigh, N.C., the next night, before heading out to a rather miraculous 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes behind a career-high 47 saves from Anton Forsberg.
That was the start of a run -- five victories in the next six games, including near-destruction inflicted on the elite rosters of the Tampa Bay Lightning (4-0 in Ottawa) and Florida Panthers (8-2 in Sunrise).
In October and November, Ottawa was hit by a string of injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak that sidelined half the roster. This month, the injuries and coronavirus cases have been experienced by other teams, at least until defenceman Nikita Zaitsev went down with what appeared to be a serious leg injury in the first period of Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Lightning.
This was a game that the Sens could have won. A couple of iffy penalty calls and one non-call on a hook to Alex Formenton late in the game were factors. Despite the loss, the Senators head into Philadelphia for a Saturday date with the Flyers brimming with confidence off this stretch of five wins in seven games.
A quick five thoughts on what has sparked the turnaround.
1. Insert the Stabilizer -- Forsberg
Anton Forsberg, aka the Forsberglar as some are calling him on social media, has been as big a goaltending surprise as Andrew ‘The Hamburglar’ Hammond was in 2015. The difference is the timing -- Hammond went on his run between February and April, to carry Ottawa into the playoffs. Forsberg is on fire in December. Can he stay hot through the final two-thirds of the season? Those are tomorrow’s concerns. For now, Forsberg is providing what Matt Murray was brought here for -- stability in the crease behind a young team that will make mistakes. While winning five straight from Dec. 2-14 and giving his team another chance to win on Thursday, allowing just two goals, Forsberg made the big early saves to allow his team to settle in. And when Ottawa stakes him to a lead, Forsberg has been able to hold it. With an AAV of $900,000, Forsberg, 29, is a bargain and motivated to earn a contract longer than one year.
2. Top line gold
Head coach D.J. Smith has relied on Brady Tkachuk for a couple of years to be the emotional leader of the Senators. But now Tkachuk brings so much more as part of a potent first line, alongside centre Josh Norris and right wing Drake Batherson. Since the start of the month, the trio has been dominant, playing against top opposition lines and scoring at a prolific rate. In eight December games, the line has produced 32 points. The trip finally was shut down by the Lightning on Thursday. Tkachuk has eight goals, and three assists for 11 points and is plus 6. Norris has six goals and three assists and is plus 9 while Batherson has two goals and 10 assists and is plus 7.
They are clearly delighting at the challenge of playing against top lines and thriving. Even if they are due to tail off in the short term, in the big picture there is still upside and a radiant future for this line of 22, 22 and 23-year-old players. What don’t they have? They are big, physical, skilled and driven. And they happen to be close pals.
3. Defence sorted, sort of
If the early season was plagued by inconsistent goaltending, it was also pockmarked with defensive problems, largely related to personnel. When the Senators were trotting out a D-corps that included Michael Del Zotto and Josh Brown, Ottawa was in trouble pretty consistently. Del Zotto was signed to a two-year contract in the off-season, and on waivers by early December, joining Matt Murray in AHL Belleville. Brown was game, but after he got injured the Senators were able to piece together a group of pairings that worked: Thomas Chabot and Nikita Zaitsev as a first pair, with veteran Nick Holden and Artem Zub as a solid second pair. And a third duo of Victor Mete, small and quick, alongside Dillon Heatherington, a 26-year-old on a two-way contract who provides a physical element at six-foot-four, 220 pounds.
It was too good to last. With Zaitsev helped off the ice in the loss to Tampa Bay, it’s time to juggle again. Rookie Jacob Bernard-Docker is already on the trip and will slot in – but where? Right to the top pair alongside Chabot? Or does coach D.J. Smith break up the Holden-Zub duo to move Zub up with Chabot again and have JBD further down. We will see this weekend in games against Philadelphia and Boston.
Already, the Sens and their fans are anticipating a defence corps that includes A-plus prospect Jake Sanderson when his college season is finished in the spring.
4. Calling on Stützle, at centre
Ottawa’s coaching staff was beyond reluctant to move Tim Stützle from left wing to centre. The thinking was, he played all of his rookie NHL season and much of his DEL experience in Germany on the wing. He was also a -18 player in his first NHL season, last year, and was considered too light, too inexperienced to take on the added responsibilities of the centre position. Only an emergency drove Smith to try out Stützle at centre -- injuries to Colin White and Shane Pinto and the lack of production from Nick Paul. Imagine their surprise when Stützle took to his new assignment, beginning Nov. 24 against San Jose, like a young duckling to his first pond. Stützle has had a renewed jump, breaks out pucks well and is starting to score. With just one goal through his first six weeks of the season, the 19-year-old sophomore has three goals and three assists in six December games. His greatest challenge is the lack of scoring talent beside him, as the Senators opted to load up their first line.
5. Special teams are pretty, er, special
In their doormat years, the Senators have generally lagged the pack when it comes to scoring power-play goals and killing penalties. Last year, Ottawa finished with the 26th-ranked power play at 17.2 per cent while their PK was slightly better at 23rd overall, with a kill rate of 78.4 per cent. With Norris replacing Evgeni Dadonov on PP1, and Batherson setting teammates up left and right, Ottawa has vaulted to 12th this year at 20 per cent on the power play. Norris leads the way with five power-play goals (Dadonov had zero PP goals last year, and just one power-play point). Tkachuk has three. And Batherson has nine power-play assists, three more than Chabot.
While the PK is still a work in progress (25th overall at 77.3 per cent), it has been much improved lately. On Tuesday, the Sens shut down all six power-play advantages for the Panthers. And in last Saturday’s 4-0 win over Tampa Bay, the Senators were perfect on five kills. In each of those wins, Ottawa was 2-for-4 on the power play, leading Smith to laud the “special-team wins.” Victor Hedman’s game-winner for the Bolts on Thursday was the first power-play goal allowed by Ottawa in five games.