The stage was set for the Ottawa Senators to do something special.
With a final home game prior to a critical four-game western swing and a rare sellout crowd at the Canadian Tire Centre, the Senators had a chance to sweep a two-game homestand and halt the 11-game winning streak of the precocious New Jersey Devils. You know, the team coming out of the rebuild that Ottawa wants to be.
It was Hockey Fights Cancer day. And mascot Spartacat’s birthday! (Sort of. Sparty is flexible with these celebrations).
All in all, a sense of occasion left and right. And it met with disaster.
The Sens didn’t just lose to the Devils, they were completely outclassed, schooled 5-1 by a team that finished third last in the Eastern Conference last season – ten points below Ottawa.
The Devils play fast, they forecheck, and they give up nothing cheap. Their defence pounces on pucks and gets them out – FAST. Their goaltending has been excellent, despite an injury to Mackenzie Blackwood. New Jersey has thrown third-stringer Akira Schmid at the Sens twice in a nine-day span (once in relief of injured Vitek Vanecek), and all Schmid did was earn two of his three career NHL victories.
Not that he had to do much. A couple of nice saves in the first period, and then Schmid had the best seat in the house while his team built up a lead that looked insurmountable at 3-0.
But . . . a glimmer of hope. The Sens closed to 3-1 on a goal by Derick Brassard and had a power play to close out the second period. A goal here and the Senators would have a real shot at a third-period rally.
The opposite happened. With five forwards on the ice, centre Tim Stützle, on the blue line, wrestled with a puck on the left boards, lost it and let Yegor Sharangovich send a pass across ice to Nico Hischier. Though Stützle came back on the play, inexplicably he failed to cover Sharangovich in the slot, who wired home a shorthanded goal that was absolutely lethal to any comeback hope for the Sens.
Stützle is usually very tough on himself but didn’t take a ton of ownership on this play.
“Off the top to me, the puck went off the wall, got like a bad bounce over my stick,” Stützle explained. “I tried to not give him a two-on-one. And, we had some back checkers there but he got the shot off . . . I didn’t really think the puck was going to land right on his stick.”
It did. And the day was done.
By late in the third period, even before Mike McLeod ran the count to 5-1 with an empty net goal, some fans could be heard chanting, “Fi-re D-J!” The reference, of course, to head coach D.J. Smith.
At game’s end, a larger collection of fans booed the Sens off the ice. All of these developments are new, with a fan base that has generally been pretty patient with a five-year rebuild.
As some fans explained on the post-game show on local radio. It wasn’t just this loss. Or even the 6-10-1 record after 17 games. It is the sight of lax or non-existent defensive zone coverage, and horrible giveaways at Ottawa’s blue line that are a recurring theme from the previous three seasons.
Smith is the prime target of fan discontent, and even still it was stunning to hear fans publicly call for his firing while sitting in the stands at just the 11th home game of the season.
Captain Brady Tkachuk stood by his coach after the 11th loss in 17 games.
‘Sick of the negativity‘
“I’m sick of the negativity towards that,” Tkachuk said. “It’s nobody to blame but ourselves, the players. We just weren’t ready to play today.
“That’s my job to get everybody ready and yeah, I’m sick and tired of seeing all this negativity, social media and all that. It’s not one person, it’s a group in here that needs to figure it out.”
Good on Tkachuk for defending his coach, but really, what can he say. He’s just 23, and Smith is the only head coach he has ever had at this level. Daniel Alfredsson went through three coaches before he found stability in Jacques Martin. And when he gave his Hall of Fame speech, Alfredsson called Bryan Murray the best bench coach he ever played for.
Tkachuk hasn’t had much of a sample size yet. Ottawa is Smith’s first head coaching gig, hired in 2019 after working as an assistant for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He works hard, is a well-liked player’s coach, and yet the same mistakes are being made in year four of his tenure.
One could argue that the Senators don’t have the type of systems play that can be their foundation – to carry them through a season, even with injuries to players like Josh Norris and Thomas Chabot. And yet, we have seen this team play well in spurts, as in games against Boston and Washington, part of a now-distant four-game winning streak.
They just could not execute when a team like the Devils put them under constant attack. Ottawa was charged with 21 giveaways on Saturday, compared to 11 by the Devils.
On the fateful shorthanded goal late in the second period, Smith defended his deployment of five forwards.
“We’ve got our five best offensive players on the ice,” Smith said. “Giroux’s playing defence, he had nothing to do with that. We didn’t come back hard enough, just let the guys come into it, as simple as that.”
Stützle jumped right back on the rest of that power play, about 30 seconds worth to open the third, so he faced no immediate repercussions for his lax play.
Dorion backs Smith, again
Here’s the thing. Smith doesn’t appear to be going anywhere – except to San Jose, California, where he landed with the team after the matinee game Saturday. The Senators meet the Sharks Monday night.
Two weeks ago, general manager Pierre Dorion backed his head coach, saying “D.J. is our coach.”
Last week, during an availability at the GM meetings in Toronto, Dorion doubled down on his support of Smith.
“Coaching is not the issue, simple as that. That’s it,” said Dorion. “For me, it’s the first time we’ve given D.J. a team that can compete for a possible playoff spot. So I think we’ve got to be patient there.”
It needs to be added – Dorion did not look happy watching that Sens-Devils game from his suite Saturday afternoon. Something between miserable and raging mad is more like it.
How patient can the Sens be? If they don’t win three of four against San Jose, Vegas, Anaheim and L.A., they will be in a monstrous hole past the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday (Nov. 24), generally accepted as a major hurdle for any non-playoff team at that point.
With new team ownership coming in as early as next spring, who knows what direction the new bosses will want to take the team. They will have their own ideas on managers and coaches.
Until then, though, the Senators’ current curators would do well to turn this ship around while they still have the opportunity to make these calls.
It won’t be easy, as a beleaguered defence corps faces further challenges. On Sunday, defenceman Jacob Bernard-Docker was ruled out for at least a month with a high ankle sprain, suffered in the loss to the Devils. And defenceman Thomas Chabot remains day-to-day recovering from a concussion. Smith said the team is going to be very cautious with Chabot before he gets the green light to return.