KANATA – Mere minutes before puck drop and mere hours after blessing young impact forward Brady Tkachuk with the second-richest contract in Ottawa Senators history, Pierre Dorion could not stop smiling.
On Tuesday night, cost-conscious owner Eugene Melnyk loosened the purse strings and flashed his general manager the greenlight to lock Tkachuk up long-term.
“I’ve felt as powerful as I’ve ever felt,” Dorion beamed. And later: “We got the Leafs tonight.”
That power surge might have transferred directly from Dorion to his skaters when the giddy executive high-fived Tim Stützle before his pre-game nap.
The Sens came flying out of the gates in their home opener Thursday, blowing the zone, pouncing on their Ontario rivals’ mistakes, and overworking Toronto goaltender Petr Mrazek to the point of injury in his Leafs debut.
Leaning into a noisy (yet not-quite-sellout) crowd at Canadian Tire Centre, the home side directed three pucks past the Czech netminder before the buzzer had sounded mercifully on the first period.
Chris Tierney guided one in with his foot. Former Leaf Tyler Ennis (who arrived in town on a PTO) tipped a power-play point shot with his torso, and Alex Formenton’s dagger arrived with just 1.4 seconds left on the clock.
Sluggish during their season-opening back-to-back, and sloppy a night later, Toronto has now dug itself a hole before the nine-minute mark in both of its games.
“We weren’t ready from the drop of the puck, and that was disappointing. It caught us off-guard, frankly, because it wasn’t an issue for us whatsoever through pre-season and obviously not the way we want to come out,” coach Sheldon Keefe had said of Wednesday’s comeback win over Montreal.
“Now you come on the road here, playing against a fresh team that you know is going to be ready. They’re going to be excited to play here today. We have to be sharp.”
And then the coach delivered some foreshadowing: “We didn’t give up very much from the 10-minute mark of the first period on. But it could’ve been over before it started.”
This one was.
A poor own-zone giveaway from Pierre Engvall, some listless feet on blended lines, and a stand-on-his-head, 46-save performance by Ottawa goaltender Anton Forsberg resulted in a 3-2 loss for the Maple Leafs and a joyous Tkachuk Day in Kanata.
“We had a lot of guys who didn’t have as much gas in the tank here today,” Keefe said.
Credit Sens coach D.J. Smith for getting the NHL’s cheapest Opening Night roster jolted from jump.
“Tremendous coach,” Keefe said. “He did a really great job with that group last season. If that season ends up going 82 games, they’re pushing for a playoff spot.”
Injury piled on insult when Mrazek — who settled down nicely in the second — limped down the tunnel and did not take the ice for the final frame.
Forty minutes into his Leafs career, Mrazek is out with a groin injury, the severity of which is not yet known.
“We just don’t want it to be serious,” Tavares said. “You hate to see it, especially in his first outing. And we weren’t great in front of him.”
Jack Campbell performed admirably in cold relief, and the Leafs pushed back aggressively with pretty goals from former Senator Jason Spezza and a dialed-in William Nylander.
Alas, Ottawa’s powerful push over the first 19:59 was all it took to secure victory.
“We gotta start the way we ended,” Nylander said.
For the Leafs, this one was over — and then it started.
“It’s early in the year, so let’s not make something too big of a deal, but you want to find your identity as a team. And obviously we’ve had two slow starts in a row,” Spezza said.
“We don’t want to make a habit of starting slow, but it is something that will be addressed.”
Round Two of the Battle of Ontario goes Saturday night in Toronto.
Who knows? Tkachuk might even be able to shimmy his way into the lineup for that one.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 14, 2021
Fox’s Fast Five
• Keefe on Engvall’s costly turnover: “Pierre was a star for us last night. It’s tough to do on back-to-back nights. It’s tough to find that level of consistency in your game. That’s a tough play by Pierre there. But there’s a lot of game left. You have to bounce back from it.”
• Tavares rarely rips the refs but described his last-minute hooking penalty on Connor Brown as “brutal.” His coach agrees.
“We’ve seen the memos on [enforcing] the cross-checks, and the guys are well aware of that. They’re adjusting to that,” Keefe said. “But I haven’t seen the memos on not being able to lift guys’ sticks.”
• Nick Ritchie isn’t making a significant impact yet for a big forward brought in and given a prime offensive opportunity alongside Mitch Marner and John Tavares.
“You’re finding your way, coming from pre-season hockey into this hockey, where it’s quicker, it’s more competitive [and] chances are harder to come by,” Keefe said, remaining patient. “But he’s just been in the league a long time, and we’ll figure that out.”
• Fun new tradition in Kanata. The Sens faithful aren’t booing; they’re bellowing, “Zuuuuub!” every time defenceman Artem Zub touches the puck.
• Sens No. 1 Matt Murray did not backup Forsberg Thursday because he’s been hit hard by a cold that’s running through the Ottawa dressing room.