In an interview last week, Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said he would be looking for “constant, consistent improvement” from his team over the rest of the season.
Dorion and head coach D.J. Smith must have been pleased as they flew home from Columbus, Ohio, on Sunday night, reflecting on a three-game road trip.
Ottawa had just closed out a 2-1 win over the Blue Jackets to finish a trip to Pittsburgh, Washington and C-Bus 1-1-1 with three of six points. If the Sens were in a hunt for a playoff spot, we might be saying that one point per game doesn’t cut it.
But that is not the case. This Senators season isn’t about chasing points — not anymore. If they win just often enough to keep up morale and reward solid play, that will be ideal.
Individual growth in Ottawa’s young talent matters above all, and Smith is putting his young players into key roles and game-on-the-line situations, so they will be ready when they face more meaningful situations in the years to come.
Stützle, Formenton step up
Ottawa fans live to see exciting moments from their young stars and those moments are arriving game after game.
Second-year forward Tim Stutzle, a fan favourite from the moment he was drafted third overall in 2020, has been on a roll since shifting over to centre from the wing position.
Stützle’s game-winner in Columbus was a pure delight, showcasing the skill to go with his growing confidence. His burst of speed to get past Blue Jackets defenceman Zach Werenski was a thing of beauty, matched only by his sweet deke of goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, tucking a backhand over the sprawling tender.
There isn’t much doubt Stützle is relishing the move to centre, the position he played while growing up in Germany.
“Since I got moved to the middle, I just want the puck every time I’m breaking it out,” Stützle said. “I’m trying to make calm plays because if you watch the best players in the league, they have so much poise when they get the puck. And I’ve just tried to bring that to my game.”
Mission accomplished. And an aside: isn’t it reassuring to see Stützle help out in his own zone, even behind his own net? Top centres are strong defensively, a third defenceman if need be, and Stützle is adding that element to his game.
Stützle has two goals and four points in his past five games, all since turning 20 years old on Jan. 15. When he matures physically, Stützle is going to be an elite player for the Senators. His faceoff results will be there in time.
Smith was bubbling over with excitement after Stützle’s performance in Washington, where he dazzled with the puck and earned himself a start in overtime play.
“I thought he was our best player,” Smith said. “He was skating. He didn’t, in the moment, just give the puck away. He wanted to be a difference-maker and it was great to see.”
But Stützle is not the only bright light on the second line these days.
The name Alex Formenton used to raise the questions: Where does he fit? Is he a third-line, penalty killer? Or something more?
He looks like something more at the moment, using his speed and daring to produce one goal and seven points in the past six games, most of it playing on the left side of Stützle. Going back over his past 15 games, Formenton has generated 14 points and is a constant breakaway threat on the PK, with speed that is among the tops in the NHL.
“Every game I want to get better,” Formenton said on the weekend. “I want to be contributing defensively and offensively.”
Smith says he is particularly pleased with Formenton’s newfound confidence to cycle the puck in the offensive zone.
“You saw him, he made a couple of nice moves (against Washington), he kept his feet moving and he made a great pass to (Zach Sanford). If he can do that with his game, the sky's the limit for this guy.”
It was interesting to see Smith drop right winger Drake Batherson onto the second line with Stützle and Formenton in the second period on Sunday. Good teams have options with their best players and more than one offensive threat. Batherson, Brady Tkachuk and Josh Norris will always be a go-to unit, but having the ability to tinker with the top six is a weapon in itself.
Classic road win, Forsberg superb
The Blue Jackets aren’t exactly an Eastern Conference power. At 18-20-1 they have as many losses as the Senators. But they still gave Ottawa a good test, with the Sens coming off an overtime loss in Washington the night before.
Against the Caps, the Senators surrendered a 2-0 lead after 40 minutes and Norris was guilty of a giveaway in overtime that led to a gorgeous Nick Backstrom goal on Matt Murray. And so, with that taste lingering, closing out a victory in Columbus was important.
It wasn’t always pretty. Columbus had several glorious scoring chances they either missed or got foiled by Anton Forsberg, making just his third start since Dec. 18. Forsberg, who tested positive for COVID-19 over the Christmas break, got thrown into the fire last week when Murray came down with a cold virus. Forsberg was pretty good against Buffalo, stopping 29 of 31 shots in a 3-1 game that Ottawa should have won given their 44 shots at Michael Houser.
And Forsberg was victimized by a really good Pittsburgh team in a 6-4 loss Thursday, despite the Sens putting 43 shots on Tristan Jarry (back to back 40-plus shot totals!).
But what a bounceback. Reminiscent of some of his brilliant work in December when Murray was in the minors, Forsberg was at his best against the Blue Jackets, getting across the crease to snuff out chances and kicking out slot shots. In stopping 35 of 36 shots, Forsberg had a .972 save percentage.
A tired road team needs its goalie and Forsberg was there for his team on Sunday.
“He was right back to where he was before he got COVID-19,” Smith said. “He saw everything tonight ... it’s a great feeling for your team when you’ve got a goalie that’s ‘feeling it.’”
Forsberg didn’t deny he received extra satisfaction from beating the Columbus team that drafted him in 2011.
“I spent my first few years of pro here and I still have a lot of friends on that team,” Forsberg said. “After that last game, it was nice to get back on track and get a win.”
Forsberg had some key help from defenceman Nick Holden, who saved a certain goal by tying up his man in front.
And when the Senators got in trouble, speedy D-man Erik Brannstrom simply skated the puck out of trouble.
Speaking of young players who are growing, Brannstrom has not looked out of place alongside Thomas Chabot and the 22-year-old has logged more than 20 minutes per game in each of the past four games.
It isn’t just Brannstrom’s confidence that is growing. Smith’s confidence in playing Brannstrom has grown as well.