These are supposed to be the worst of times for the Ottawa Senators.
They are missing two-thirds of their top line – with Drake Batherson and Josh Norris out with injuries.
They trail most of their rivals in the standings and their schedule is brutal, packed with games that had to be re-slotted due to the pandemic.
On top of that, they play their home games in front of no more than 500 fans, an atmosphere that is decidedly more eerie than cheery.
And yet, they keep winning. Tuesday’s cliffhanger, a 4-3 win over the visiting Carolina Hurricanes, was Ottawa’s second straight, on top of Monday’s 4-1 victory over New Jersey. In their past eight games, the Senators are 5-2-1.
How are they doing it?
Puck stops here
In a number of ways. It starts with goaltending. Matt Murray has been outstanding in his latest reformation. The man has had more starts and stops than a bag skate since coming over from Pittsburgh before last season, but in the new year he has been rock-solid, confident.
— Locked On Senators (@SensCentral) February 8, 2022
It’s fair to say that the Senators were out-chanced on Monday AND Tuesday, but won in large part because of the play of Murray, and then Anton Forsberg.
“It makes you a better coach,” said Senators head coach D.J. Smith, with a smile, after Forsberg’s win.
It was the second straight night in which goaltending topped the post-game conversation.
“You’re not going anywhere in this league without it,” said Smith, to a goalie question after Murray stopped 32 of 33 Devils shots.
“Everytime we needed a save, he made it. It’s a really good feeling on the bench when you have that. Guys don’t grip it as tightly, we scored two goals in nine seconds (in the second period).
“As Murr has confidence in himself, the guys have confidence in him, and it’s just a good feeling.”
“He kind of stole that,” defenceman Nick Holden said of Murray’s performance. “And that’s something that you need throughout the year. You’re going to have games where you need your goalie to win you the game and he did that.”
Against Carolina, Forsberg had even more work, facing 45 shots and stopping 42. It was reminiscent of his spectacular win over the Hurricanes on Dec. 2, when he stopped 47 of 49 missiles in a 3-2 Sens win. Considering an elite team like the Canes have just one win in three tries versus Ottawa, and that via the shootout Jan. 27, they were probably glad to leave town.
Forsberg had some goalpost help and the Hurricanes missed a first period buzzer-beater by a fraction of a second, but hey, when you’re hot, you get breaks. And Ottawa’s goalies are hot.
"(Our goaltenders) have been our best players throughout this stretch of hockey and they keep us in games every night," said Senators captain Brady Tkachuk, who ended a 15-game goalless drought with a pair of goals. "They make those timely saves."
Goals by committee
When you are missing your two top scorers, you have to adjust, and you need scoring from a variety of sources. Seven players provided goals in the Monday-Tuesday victories, and two of them ended prolonged slumps: Tkachuk and Chris Tierney.
Nick Paul, Holden (who prevented two Carolina goals on Tuesday), Connor Brown, Adam Gaudette and Alex Formenton were the other goal scorers.
Gaudette and Dylan Gambrell have been nice additions through the injury issues, and big Mark Kastelic has been a force. Smith has been able to roll lines and is getting great penalty killing. Paul with Austin Watson and Brown and Formenton have been the usual PK pairs.
“The pairs take pride and work with each other, get a feel for what each other is doing,” Smith said.
There has been a bend, don’t break flavour around the Senators lately, and it is by design. Smith and his coaching staff brought in a defensive system in the neutral zone that Smith said is “more aggressive but easier to play,” and figured it would be better for his recent additions to the lineup.
“It’s good for young guys,” Smith said. “We get (the puck), we’re in motion and able to create a little more action the other way.”
Smith said he swiped the system from Pete DeBoer back when Smith was coaching in the OHL with the Oshawa Generals.
Beyond system adjustments is the proverbial attention to detail. In their past eight games, the Sens have yielded just 13 goals, 1.6 per game.
It starts with reducing odd-man rushes, which were a big issue early in the season. Smith said people love to talk about system adjustments, but the turnaround has as much to do with a state of mind.
“Are you closing plays out? Are you more intense? Are you boxing out? Are you getting the puck and breaking out right away?” Smith said, rhetorically.
“I think every team in the league has very similar systems within two or three different things in the D-zone, but who does it faster and harder? And who spends less time there? The quicker you can break out, the less time you’re going to spend in your zone.”
The “play faster, harder” expression reminds us of the recurring “play harder, longer” phrase Paul MacLean wore out when he was head coach of the Senators. Coaches do love their catchphrases.
With games against Pittsburgh (at the Canadian Tire Centre) Thursday, Boston, Saturday and a trip to Washington on Sunday, Ottawa has some work left in this five-in-seven days scenario.
Not surprisingly, the players aren’t looking very far ahead.
“The focus is game to game,” Holden said. “We continue to build. We have an opportunity to win every night. We can’t take steps back. Winning in the NHL is about consistency, I think that’s the biggest thing.”
As Smith said early this week, there are worse things in life than having to play a lot of hockey in a short period of time. He might have been thinking of the trucker chaos downtown when he spoke.
Players are getting their treatments, their rest, and don’t have to practice much. It’s a scenario every kid would like.
‘A blast playing with Timmy’
“That’s what we dream about, playing the game, right?” Tkachuk said. “I think everybody is really excited just to be playing.”
With Norris out, Tkachuk has been playing alongside Tim Stützle, and the pair is starting to show some chemistry. Stützle is using his speed and creativity to make things happen – and that was particularly evident during a 4-on-4 sequence Tuesday in which Stützle bought time, drove the puck to the net and created a rebound goal for Tkachuk.
“It’s a blast playing with Timmy,” Tkachuk said, after the win over Carolina. “He has so much skill, so much speed. Playing with Josh and Drake was great, and now there is a new kind of connection playing with Timmy. We keep getting better together, just keep talking and trying to learn from one another.”