This was one of those games that needed to be stopped with a freeze-frame after 20 minutes.
The pinnacle had been reached. There were the Ottawa Senators outplaying and outshooting the Vancouver Canucks by a wide margin, though leading just 2-1. Actor Ryan Reynolds, a prospective suitor to buy the Senators, was in the house at the Canadian Tire Centre and got introduced via the Jumbotron.
As the Deadpool star waved to the crowd, fans got to their feet with an ovation, some chanting “Buy the team!” Reynolds doffed his cap and soaked it in, while Senators players banged their sticks on the boards, saluting their potential new celebrity boss in the fashion of youth hockey players.
Though he lives in Vancouver, and this was a game involving the visiting Canucks, Reynolds noticeably applauded each Sens goal and did not react when Vancouver scored. Reynolds has publicly stated he is interested in buying the Senators and is looking for financial partners to do so. If he files a formal bid, he would be on one of several parties believed to be pursuing the hockey club.
Just a few minutes after Reynolds’ cameo scene, local hero Chris Neil was introduced, with the news that his No. 25 jersey would be retired on Feb. 17. Neil was no scoring star, or star period, but his value to the Senators and to the Ottawa community is only really understood by those who live here. And so ‘Neiler’ will get his day.
And that’s how the first period ended, with hearts full and Ottawa leading the hockey game 2-1, a game it simply HAD to have, to end a five-game losing streak and find some semblance of confidence again.
It was not to be. Vancouver tied the game in the second period, on a net drive by former Maple Leafs forward Ilya Mikheyev and took the lead on the second goal of the night by Bo Horvat.
The Canucks took a two-goal lead and Ottawa clawed back on the power play with an individual effort by Tim Stützle. And then Vancouver regained the two-goal lead after a giveaway by Erik Brannstrom led to a shot by Jack Studnicka that Sens goaltender Cam Talbot failed to catch cleanly. Another Sens power play goal (Claude Giroux) and then another two-goal Canucks lead from an empty netter by Elias Pettersson.
Herein lies the recipe for pushing a losing streak to six games, all in regulation time. Fail to score more than two measly goals on 35 shots after 40 minutes (against a backup goalie, Spencer Martin) and then cough up the puck in the critical third period.
“You get to the third period, clearly we just didn’t make the plays we needed to make,” said Senators head coach D.J. Smith, the subject of a support of confidence by GM Pierre Dorion just the day before. “We just didn’t make the plays we had to make. We turn pucks over – we gave them two goals.”
Interestingly, though he wasn’t requested for an interview, Talbot purposely hung around, the last man in the room taking off his equipment – his way of facing the music.
“I needed to be better tonight and I wasn’t good enough,” Talbot said, to a few reporters who broke away from a Travis Hamonic scrum to hear the goaltender speak.
Talbot admitted that in only his second start of the season since coming back from a cracked rib, it was difficult to stay sharp facing sporadic shots from the Canucks, just eight in each of the first two periods.
“You want to feel the puck a bit more and haven’t really gotten the chance through the first three games here,” said Talbot, who made his season debut in relief of Anton Forsberg in a 5-4 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. Talbot stopped all 13 shots he faced that night.
In his first start, the veteran Talbot lost to Philadelphia 2-1, a game that Ottawa again should have won based on chances. After allowing five goals on 27 Canucks shots, Talbot wasn’t about to let captain Brady Tkachuk, winger Drake Batherson and Hamonic face reporters alone.
“I should have to answer for this game and not the other three guys, but you know, give them credit,” Talbot said. “They’re never gonna throw a guy under the bus. But you know, sometimes you’ve just got to hold yourself accountable in these situations. I thought we played well enough to win and I just didn’t get the effort needed from me.”
Ottawa may turn back to Forsberg for their game in New Jersey Thursday. From there, it’s Claude Giroux day in Philadelphia as he returns to his former hockey home for the first time as a Senator on Saturday.
To a man, the Senators feel they are going to come out of this slump that has them 4-8 to start the season. It was also against Vancouver last season that a five-game slump became six losses on Dec. 1, 2021 (aka rock bottom). And yet the Sens feel they have a lot more talent than the previous editions of the club that went on early tailspins.
“We’re not going to be in this for that much longer,” Tkachuk said. “It’s going to be fun when we get out of this and kind of prove everybody wrong.”
Asked if this was getting to be a fragile group, Batherson said that “frustrated” was a better word for it.
“We’re dying for a win right now,” Batherson said. His fourth goal of the season opened the scoring just 50 seconds into period one, that period of fun, while it lasted.
Sens to retire Neil’s No. 25
On the day of the game, Chris Neil was informed he would be having his No. 25 jersey retired. A moment later, his family entered the room and Neil broke into tears of joy.
Never the most skilled of Senators, Neil was a rugged role player who led the franchise in penalty minutes (2,522) over his 17 NHL seasons and 1,026 games, all for Ottawa.
“Chris was a team-first player, a physical presence who never backed down from a challenge,” said Senators general manager Pierre Dorion. “He earned his place every single day through hard work and dedication; he was the ultimate character player and wore the Senators sweater with as much or more pride than any other player in this team’s history.”
Neil, who grew up in Flesherton, On., was drafted 161st by the Senators in 1998. He played for Ottawa from 2001 to 2017. Off the ice, Neil and his wife, Caitlin, were known for their tireless work in the community on behalf of the Senators’ Foundation and as co-chairs of Roger’s House, a palliative care facility named in honour of the late Senators coach Roger Neilson.
Senators president Anthony LeBlanc described Neil as having a “unique legacy” as a player and member of the community in which he played.
“His impact on this city is a model for players across the National Hockey League,” LeBlanc said.
In this 30th anniversary season, the Senators are honouring figures of the past, players and other members of the organization. Late owner Eugene Melnyk was recognized with a banner at a game in October.
Neil becomes the third modern-day Senators player to have his jersey retired, after franchise icon Daniel Alfredsson (to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday) and defenceman Chris Phillips. A fourth jersey, No. 8, hangs in honour of the late Frank Finnigan, who played on the early-era Senators teams.