Despite loss, Senators find new life in season with revitalized roster

Josh Anderson scored the game-winner in the third period as the Montreal Canadiens held on for the 2-1 win over the Ottawa Senators.

With all due apologies to the wizardry of fake noise, we miss the home crowd to give us a sense of the mood of a city.

How would Ottawa react to its homecoming Senators — a standing O for the conquering heroes who beat Les Glorieux at the Bell Centre on Thursday, or would there be a wait-and-see approach for the club that dropped six of seven on the road and nine straight overall before recording their second win of the season?

Moreover, how fierce would the buzz resonate for rookie teen sensation Tim Stützle, who is merely the most exciting player the Senators have had since Erik Karlsson, with a potential that would seem to reach the heights of an Ottawa Valley sky?

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If a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear it — and if Stützle is pulling fans out of their living room seats all over the region, can we still feel the pull inside an empty Canadian Tire Centre?

Saturday afternoon, in scenes from a matinee movie, the Senators dressed in their new Retro Red sweaters and tangled with the Montreal Canadiens in white:

• The Senators dropped the rematch 2-1, but can file this in the moral victory category. They put 35 shots on Habs netminder Jake Allen and were in this game to the dying seconds. “This is more like it!,” fans might have yelled, leaving this game — if they’d been allowed in the building. Even the lights are dimmer without fans in the house.

• A third period goal by Josh Anderson, the third shot of a sequence, decided the game after teams traded early power play goals, Jeff Petry for Montreal and Colin White for Ottawa.

• The Habs were outshooting the Senators early, but were not getting Grade A looks, with Senators goaltender Matt Murray playing his angles and using his size to stay out of danger.

• Stützle, tied with Philipp Kurashev for the NHL rookie goal scoring lead with four, dangled in the offensive zone, making creative little plays and not afraid to shoot. Clearly, Stützle has the Habs’ attention as he was high sticked twice in the face in the second period, and nearly scored on one of the resulting power plays. The kid also caught a Ben Chiarot cross check to the head in the dying seconds. Welcome to the NHL moments.

• For a second straight game, Ottawa has stepped up in the faceoff circle. After getting schooled on faceoffs for most of the season, the Senators won 57 per cent of their draws on Saturday. It makes a massive difference in their zone play, enabling clears on the penalty kill and control on their power play.

The air is back in the balloon. The Senators team that was getting blown out of games is getting early saves and competing again, especially when their most familiar rivals are on the other side. Ottawa is 2-2 against the Leafs and Canadiens this season, and 0-8-1 against the rest of the North Division.

Head coach D.J. Smith said he thought the win in Montreal on Thursday allowed what had been a fragile team to “take the shackles off. I thought we skated with them wire to wire,” Smith said, after Saturday’s loss.

“We are starting to know what we are as a team.”

Centre Derek Stepan said he feels the club has forged an “identity” in recent games. By clogging the neutral zone, they can keep teams from setting up in Ottawa’s end.

“It’s amazing what one win did for us, it took a lot of pressure off,” Stepan said.

Even a number change can help. Stepan changed his jersey number from 15 to 21 and felt more comfortable, he said. Stepan said he will make it up to Logan Brown when he gets called up on the NHL roster. Brown had been wearing 21, but is on the AHL roster at the moment.

This is all anyone expected this season of the rebuilding Sens, that their goaltender would keep them in games and they would put a scare into contenders on occasion.

The Senators just became one of the more interesting teams to lose ten of their first 12 games.

The reason for that is a fan victory of sorts. While Senators management and coaching staff have said the young prospects would get their chance, they also said they would have to “earn their spots.” They might have added that those spots could open suddenly if the veterans flunk out and fans revolt at the daily roster postings.

In the end, a little of this and a little of that resulted in a decisive culture shift. At the break of training camp, Senators fans were either irked or outright furious that a band of mostly ‘temp’ veterans were occupying precious roster spots ahead of prospects.

The westerly breeze that pushed the Senators flight from Edmonton to Montreal mid-week was a wind of change. A starting lineup that opened the season with Artem Anisimov, Cedric Paquette, Braydon Coburn contained none of those players on Thursday or Saturday, a roster that was energized by the presence of defenceman Erik Brannstrom, 21, and Artem Zub, 25, a rookie out of the KHL.

And, above all, coach Smith saw that his teenage winger, Stützle, was powered by a turbocharger in the early going against the Habs on Thursday, and he gave him the leash to run — nearly 15 minutes of ice time plus first unit power play shifts. Stützle ran again on Saturday, playing 17 plus minutes of the game, including 5:22 on the power play. The rookie had three shots on goal and a deflected shot of his hit the post.

“For his age, it’s unbelievable what he’s doing out there,” Smith said, following Stützle’s three-point explosion in his Bell Centre debut. “And he’s tracking and he’s blocking shots. You get that feeling he can do all things. At the end of the game I felt comfortable putting him out there. He knows how to play the game the right way. He was exceptional.”

In on all three of Ottawa’s goals in the 3-2 win, Stützle became the youngest Senators player to have a three-point game since Alex Daigle in 1993. He was already in record territory with a run of three goals in three games, a feat that matched the marks of Daigle and Alexei Yashin.

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Smith is not surprised the Habs came after Stützle aggressively.

“When you’re that fast, it happens,” Smith said, suggesting it is nothing new for the kid. “He’s been a star player his whole life.”

He will grow and get stronger. When he does, No. 18 will dish some of that back. His roommate Brady Tkachuk had words with a couple of Canadiens players who took liberties with Stützle.

The kids are gradually taking over the power spots. A team that will soon belong to Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Stützle, Thomas Chabot and a host of others not yet at this level.

As they check in, they will need more goaltending like this from Murray, who came over from Pittsburgh in the Senators biggest trade of the off-season and struggled early.

Smith believes Murray felt the pressure to be the guy for a young team.

Murray, who had his best outing of the season on Thursday’s win, carried that ‘A’ game over. He was needed in the first period, as the Habs put 18 shots on him and managed just one goal, a power play blast from Petry.

It was impressive to see Ottawa turn in a second consecutive strong game against an opponent.

Those scoring at home will know that Ottawa managed to beat the Leafs on opening night, only to fall in Game 2. The Senators should have beaten the Winnipeg Jets in their first meeting, but got outplayed by them the next game.

The Canadiens, who had been the most consistent performer in the North Division until Thursday’s pedestrian outing on home ice, were not going to fall easily in the rematch. They came out hard and used their experience to close it out.


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