NHL Weekend Takeaways: Senators should see value in bumpy season

Ottawa Senators' forward Brady Tkachuk speaks about the future outlook of his team.

It’s easy to believe — either in the moment or when looking back from a different vantage point down the road — that a lot of teams will consider this season a bit of a write off. Limited, crunched schedule. Postponed games. Rinks that feel cavernous without 15,000 of their closest friends there.

The Ottawa Senators, despite a dismal .378 points percentage, might actually be a squad that sees value in this season. It’s been a bumpy ride, but a handful of new and emerging Sens are experiencing their first taste of real NHL minutes. And if you could go in with whiteout and just blot out a few specific segments of the Senators’ schedule, this club’s story would get that much more enticing.

Matt Murray and the Senators shutout the Montreal Canadiens 4-0 on Saturday night. A Habs team trying to secure the final playoff berth in the North Division got absolutely nothing going versus cellar-dwelling Ottawa. The breezy win gave the Sens a 5-3-0 mark against Montreal this season. Meanwhile, Ottawa is 5-2-0 versus fifth-place Calgary and a very respectable 3-4-1 head-to-head with North-leading Toronto.

Here’s the rub — as in, the part Ottawa wishes it could rub out. The Sens have completely whiffed against the Edmonton Oilers, going 0-9-0. Nine contests against Connor McDavid and not so much as a loser point to show for it. They also started the year 2-11-1, thanks in no small part to some shoddy goaltending. The crease has definitely been a serious subplot this year, as Ottawa is the only club to have five different tenders start at least one contest.

The team has received more saves as the year progressed, though, and since mid-February this kid-riddled squad is 13-14-3.

The scoresheet on Saturday was a testament to where this organization is headed. Drake Batherson had a pair of goals and an assist; Josh Norris had a couple helpers, as did the second-youngest regular on the team, Brady Tkachuk. (Rookie Tim Stützle, 19, is the baby). And there was centre Shane Pinto, picking up his first NHL point in his league debut by winning a defensive-zone faceoff back to Nikita Zaitsev, who bombed it the length of the ice into an empty net.

Pinto was a Hobey Baker finalist. His University of North Dakota teammate, 2018 first-rounder Jacob Bernard-Docker, debuted on Ottawa’s blue-line last week. Jake Sanderson, another UND defenceman, is going back to school next year, but will be making his presence felt with the Sens soon enough.

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It’s a pieces game at this point — and there are simply too many good ones already with the team or on the way for this not to get very interesting in the near future. Also of note: with a little draft lottery luck, the Sens could be selecting very high again this summer and incorporating another stud into the mix.

Yet further proof this year is no waste for Ottawa.

Other Takeaways

• If we’re going to give some shine to Ottawa, let’s save a little for the Buffalo Sabres, too. The Sabres split a two-game set in Buffalo with Pittsburgh on the weekend, emerging with a 4-2 win on Sunday. That’s despite starter Linus Ullmark going down again with an injury. Dustin Tokarski has stepped in and given this squad everything his small-for-a-modern-goalie frame can offer. The Sabres are now 6-3-2 since their God-awful 18-game losing streak ended.

• Is the Rangers push starting too late? The Blueshirts won two more games over their rivals from New Jersey on the weekend — 6-3 at home on Saturday, 5-3 in Jersey 24 hours later — completing a four-game sweep of the Devils dating back to last Tuesday. New York is 13-4-3 in its past 20 games, but still trails Boston by four points for the final playoff spot in the East. (The Bruins also hold two contests in hand). The Rangers have climbed into elite company in terms of goal-differential, with a plus-33 mark bested by only league powers Colorado, Vegas, Carolina and Tampa Bay. Artemi Panarin — who had a six-point weekend — leads the league with 34 points in 20 games since he returned from personal leave on March 13. Mika Zibanejad is tied for second in that stretch with 30.

Following Tuesday’s roadie with the Islanders, the Blueshirts play seven of eight at Madison Square Garden — then they also close the year with two games in Boston.

• What a monumental win for the Arizona Coyotes over the St. Louis Blues on Saturday. It’s basically down to these two clubs for the final playoff spot in the West and Arizona — playing its first home game since a tough 3-6-0 road trip — clawed out of a 2-0 hole to beat the Blues 3-2 and inch one point ahead of them in the standings. The game marked Darcy Kuemper’s return to the crease after missing 19 games with a lower-body injury.

All that occurred after an emotional ceremony in which the Coyotes inducted superfan Leighton Accardo into the team’s ring of honour. Accardo died of cancer in November at nine years old.

Weekend Warrior

A handful of the league’s top-10 scorers were wearing diapers when Patrick Marleau debuted for the Sharks on Oct. 1, 1997 at 18 years and 16 days old. Patty tied Gordie with game No. 1,767 in Minnesota on Saturday night. He’ll pass Mr. Hockey for the record on Monday night in Vegas, with his four boys and wife watching from the stands. Here’s to two all-timers from Saskatchewan.

The Week Ahead

• We’re now one week past the NHL trade deadline, so watch for players traded from American teams to Canadian clubs to start emerging from quarantine and making their North Division debuts. That would include the likes of Nick Foligno of the Maple Leafs, Dmitry Kulikov of the Oilers and new Canadiens blue-liners Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson.

• What a return from COVID hell for the Canucks on Sunday night, beating the Leafs 3-2 in overtime. Those same two clubs will do it again on Tuesday as the hockey world suddenly feels like it is rallying behind Vancouver.

• He’s still got a ways to go to catch Marleau and Howe, but Zdeno Chara will suit up for career contest No. 1,600 on Saturday when the Capitals visit the Islanders. If this season happens to be the end for Marleau — no sure thing because he wants to keep playing — Chara would still need two more full seasons, plus a handful of games to start a third year, in order to pass Marleau. Chara turned 44 last month and — under the scenario presented — he’d break the record about six months after turning 46. Are you definitely betting against him being a 15-minutes-a-night, third-pair guy and PK specialist in 2023?

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