Senators’ Alberta sweep exemplifies why there’s hope for a brighter future

Josh Norris had two goals including the game-winner late in the third period as the Ottawa Senators defeated the Edmonton Oilers 6-4.

As we settle into 2022, the Ottawa Senators are four years deep in their rebuild and on track for another lottery pick.

Not surprisingly the numbers aren’t pretty out of this lengthy slog. Since the day the Senators traded away captain and franchise defenceman Erik Karlsson at the dawn of the 2018 training camp, Ottawa has posted a record of 88-127-25. Eighty-eight wins out of 240 games.

Since Feb. 25, 2019, the day Mark Stone was dealt to the Vegas Golden Knights, Ottawa has gone 66-92-20; 66 victories from 178 games.

That might seem depressing, for those who don’t follow the team. And to some who do. The Senators haven’t had a sniff of a playoff spot since their surprise run of 2017, despite expectations inside the organization itself that it would be competitive these past two seasons.

Last year was doomed by a horrible start and poor goaltending. This current one collapsed in November under the weight of injuries and Covid-related issues, followed by a near-complete shutdown of the schedule in late December and early January due to Covid outbreaks and attendance restrictions.

And yet the mood of the fan base has been brightened considerably by the resilience of this young group and the connections fans are making with them.

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In what felt like a fresh start to a delayed season, the Senators swept a two-game series in Alberta (shrunk from four on the schedule), cruising past the Calgary Flames 4-1 on Thursday before battling back against Edmonton’s 3-1 lead to beat the Oilers 6-4 Saturday night. Ottawa put four third-period goals past Stuart Skinner and a fifth into the empty net.

In the end, it was a small but satisfying payback for Edmonton’s nine straight wins over Ottawa in the North Division last season.

“I’d like to say we all forgot about last year,” said centre Josh Norris, who scored two power-play goals against the Oil, virtually from the same spot on the right circle. “But we’re competitive guys. It feels good (to get the win) for the guys here from last year.”

Norris used three different helmets to get through the game – it was that kind of night. Not always pretty. But the visitors grinded one out, with a surprising push from the line of Chris Tierney, Alex Formenton and Adam Gaudette.

It had to be a pleasant flight home for a team that shut down Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Never mind that the Senators only improved to 11-18-2 on the season, 24 points off 31 games.

The Senators’ schedule is going to be ridiculous from here – 51 games to cram into a schedule supposedly ending on April 29. The notion of climbing back into the playoff picture is preposterous, especially in the NHL’s toughest division, the Atlantic.

And so this team will find reasons to play hard, for the future. They will, as winger Brady Tkachuk said, consider this crammed schedule to be playoff training – games every other day, like in a playoff series. Most fans will be along for the ride.

Already, there is a sense that the era of Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Phillips, Karlsson, Stone, Jean-Gabriel Pageau etc. is giving way to a new group led by Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Thomas Chabot and Norris, among others. Franchise viability and management will dictate whether this leads to a championship-calibre group, but for now there is a decent window of opportunity without threat of losing any of the best young talent.

By the time this team becomes competitive, perhaps as early as next season, the new-ish core of the team will be established fan favourites. Exhibit A – Batherson.

When the big right winger wore a microphone at a recent practice session, the result was a hilarious down-east narrative that included such gems as “puttin’ ‘er right in the pocky” (top corner) and “the old lungs are barking at me up here in the alti” (the Calgary altitude). More than one Twitter commenter saw it as a good fit for an “epi” from Letterkenny.

Batherson’s Nova Scotia charm would be welcomed on any team even if he was a third-line grinder. The fact is, he can flat out play and has been the Senators’ best and most productive forward all season – 30 points in 26 games.

When Batherson was named as Ottawa’s representative at the NHL All-Star Game in Vegas next month, the nomination was a no-doubter. Head coach D.J. Smith was delighted for him.

“He’s such a great kid, just loves hockey,” Smith said. “He comes in in the morning, and talks about who scored in a junior game the previous night. You’re not going to find a hockey junkie like him and it’s great to see him get rewarded.

“He’s not a first-round pick. He’s a guy that’s been developed the right way here. He continues to do great things and the guys love him.”

The fans love him, too. Why wouldn’t they? This witty, talented, first-line winger is just 23 and is locked into a team-friendly contract for the next five seasons, sub-$5 million.

They also love their captain, Tkachuk, secured after some heavy lifting during training camp to a seven-year deal.

They relish the way Tkachuk wears his heart on his sleeve, hell-bent to lead this group.

They have virtually adopted Tim Stützle, the young German centre who turned 20 on Saturday. Fans have taken him in as though he were a house billet with them.

They love the cool sniping of Norris, acquired in the Karlsson trade. Norris has a team-leading 16 goals in 30 games – seven on the power play – adding green numbers to his future contract.

They are already excited for their fifth overall draft pick from 2020, defenceman Jake Sanderson, who hasn’t played a game in Ottawa yet, but could this spring. Sanderson, nominated for the NCAA Hobey Baker Award and part of the Ottawa/University of North Dakota pipeline, is already being pencilled in as a vital building block on D corps, with the underrated star Chabot, the beloved Artem Zub and several other prospects.

They root for little Erik Brannstrom, fighting to earn a place on a blueline about to get more crowded.

They can’t wait for the arrival from AHL Belleville of Egor Sokolov, the Russian sniper who bubbles over with personality and has ties to Batherson from junior hockey in Cape Breton.

These rooting interests represent hope and a sense of caring about young players welcomed like family to this community.

Hope is everything. And there is hope in Ottawa despite the rebuilding win-loss record.

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