Smith hopes adversity can be rallying point for Senators amid losses, COVID

Senators head coach D.J. Smith discusses the latest two players in the COVID protocols, aren't yet confirmed cases, but says it's not an ideal situation, but they need to move forward, and hopes that this can bring them closer together.

As if they didn’t have enough on their plate, now the Ottawa Senators are dealing with COVID-19 cases in the dressing room, to go with recent losses in the standings.

Over the weekend, the Senators had two players in COVID protocols, winger Austin Watson and defenceman Nick Holden, plus assistant coach Jack Capuano. By Monday, the list had grown to include winger Connor Brown and centre Dylan Gambrell, although head coach D.J. Smith said that the two don’t have their test results and are being kept out of Tuesday’s game in Boston as a precaution. There is a chance that either or both could rejoin the team for home games later in the week.

Naturally, the team is bracing for more cases while hoping there is no further spread. The entire roster and staff are being tested every day to keep on top of the situation.

“It’s not ideal,” Smith said on a Zoom call with reporters Monday, after the morning practice was cancelled due to COVID concerns.

“We’re certainly shorthanded, but it’s a chance for our group to come together and there’s no excuses in pro sports -- things have to carry on.”

Winger Egor Sokolov was recalled from AHL Belleville and will make his NHL debut against the Bruins. Veteran winger Scott Sabourin was also called up from the B-Sens. On Sunday, the Senators made the move to recall defenceman Erik Brannstrom, when it was clear that Holden would not be available. Brannstrom was sent to Belleville after the pre-season but has played 63 games with Ottawa over the past three seasons and it’s nice to see him get another opportunity.

The Senators will not bring extra bodies on the road as insurance against further positive tests, but should that occur, a player or players from Belleville would drive to Boston for the game.

As part of the flurry of weekend transactions, goaltender Filip Gustavsson was sent back to Belleville, leaving Matt Murray and Anton Forsberg to carry the load for now.

After losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-3 on Saturday for their fourth straight loss, and then having COVID cases pile up after an earlier non-COVID virus was going around the dressing room, Smith admitted the team’s morale has taken a hit.

“First off, guys I’m sure, are worried about their health,” Smith said. “This is not something anyone wants, it’s nothing to play with. Sports has to be second when it comes to your health in something like this. So, the guys seemed a little down today, losing players and guys out with injuries. And we haven’t been winning, so that’s typical.

“But you know what? Nobody feels sorry for anybody. We’ll pick ourselves up. We’ll have a good morning skate tomorrow and we’ll get ourselves going. We’ve got to find a way to play 60 full minutes, whether we have some key guys out or not. We’ve got to continue to check and check better - I thought against Tampa we did. We made a couple of major mistakes late. Our schedule has been filled with real good teams and we haven’t responded -- but hey, I suspect that this (adversity) is going to pull us closer together.”

The Senators are 3-7-1 with a minus-12 goal differential, the second worst in the Eastern Conference. The Montreal Canadiens are minus-19.

Once they get healthy -- perhaps even while they are shorthanded -- Ottawa is going to need some positive game results as they get past the positive COVID tests.

Last season, when COVID cases were raging in the general population and vaccinations were only beginning to ramp up, the Senators stayed healthy in their Canadian bubble, with games and travel restricted to Canadian venues. Probably not coincidentally, these recent cases, beginning with Watson late last week, come after the Sens’ road trip to the United States, with games in Dallas, Chicago and Minnesota from Oct. 29-Nov. 2.

Rough first month

The Senators vowed to avoid last year’s horrific start to the season -- a 2-12-1 run that put them out of contention very early in a condensed, 56-game season.

This year teams are back to the usual 82-game grind, which might provide a few clubs the opportunity to rebound from a rough patch out of the gate. But if the late Yogi Berra were to look at the Eastern Conference standings, he might have used his famous “it gets late early out here” line.

The friendlier North Division of last year has given way to a pretty fierce environment in the Atlantic Division, with Florida off to a torrid start, Tampa Bay always a threat and the Maple Leafs on a strong stretch after stumbling early on. You know Boston but will be in the mix. Even Detroit and Buffalo, teams expected to finish below Ottawa this season based on the Senators strong finish last year, are earning better than a point per game. The Wings are seven points up on the Senators and the Sabres are five points better than Ottawa. Detroit has played two more games than Buffalo and Ottawa.

Only the lowly Canadiens, with six points in 13 games, are below the Senators in the Atlantic.

The Metro Division has a wealth of strong teams, so the teams earning Eastern Conference wild card spots will be formidable.

As Smith likes to say, there are still 70-plus games to go, but there is urgency now for Ottawa to put together some wins and stop the bleeding before the goal of remaining within shouting distance of a playoff spot is gone and Ottawa eyes a lottery pick yet again. That would be disheartening after management declared this fall that the “rebuild is over.”

When the Senators won two of their first three games -- beating Toronto in the season opener and then the Dallas Stars on Oct. 17, Smith had a big smile on his face as he told reporters he had just been chatting with Brady Tkachuk -- newly signed to a long-term contract -- about how painfully long it took Ottawa to win two games last season. It wasn’t until game 11.

This year, the Senators only needed three games to win their second of the season, but the wins have been hard to find since. Ottawa has won just one of its past eight games, including one overtime loss, for the record of 3-7-1 after 11 games. So, the Sens are merely one win better than last season at the 11-game mark.

For every sign that things are different this time -- that the goaltending is better, that Drake Batherson and Josh Norris have blossomed, and the young Senators are not getting blown out of games like the 7-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks early last year and 8-5 to Edmonton -- they are still among the NHL’s worst teams as far as allowing shots and chances.

To go with their defensive shortcomings, no defenceman has scored a goal and winger Tim Stützle, a rookie star last year, is still looking for his first goal of the season. So, there is a lot of work to do, even with tons of time for improving.

Since beating Dallas 4-1 on Oct. 29 (despite getting outshot 39-24), the Senators have given up five goals per game during their current four-game losing streak.

Pinto, White sorely missed

It is easy to pick on individual defencemen, with Josh Brown and Nikita Zaitsev being the usual suspects, but Ottawa’s defensive zone coverage is a team issue. After defencemen, centres are the next line of defence for every team and the Senators have played most of the first three-plus weeks without two of their starting centres -- rookie Shane Pinto and veteran Colin White.

Pinto had already established himself as a second-line centre on this team when he went out with a shoulder injury. He is back practising and should return to the lineup soon. White is longer term. And now newly acquired centre Gambrell is on the Covid protocols list.

Smith says the game plan for his undermanned team is to check, check and check some more.

He wants a blue-collar effort to battle the blues that have struck his team.

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