Senators’ slim playoff hopes take another hit after falling to Maple Leafs in shutout

Ilya Samsonov made 30 saves en route to his fourth shutout of the season and Radim Zohorna made a strong first impression scoring in his season debut as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Ottawa Senators 3-0.

OTTAWA — No Ryan Reynolds on this night.

And no Battle of Ontario magic for the home side. 

In yet another game the Ottawa Senators had to have, they didn’t get it, falling 3-0  to the Maple Leafs, a loss that makes the remote even more remote re: the Sens slight hopes of grabbing one of the two wild card spots in the east. Six points back now with six games left. 

Ottawa will have to win out and get help. 

The Senators flew out after the game to deal with Columbus on Sunday. The Jackets did the Sens no favours, losing 7-0 to Florida Saturday, as the Panthers displaced Pittsburgh for the second wild card spot. The Senators will soldier on until the math doesn’t add up. 

“Everybody in the city who follows us knows we’re not going to give up till that very last buzzer,” said captain Brady Tkachuk. “If it happens, great, but if not, there’s a lot of valuable lessons and experience in the process.”

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The final Battle of Ontario on the calendar drew a huge crowd, 20,097, and more than half of them went home happy, even if the game lacked the sizzle of a 5-4 shootout win by Toronto on March 18. 

The Leafs were full value, playing for the relative luxury of home ice advantage in round one, while the Senators were playing for their playoff lives, such as they exist. They were also playing shorthanded on defence, minus three injured regulars in Thomas Chabot, Jakob Chychrun and Travis Hamonic. 

The Leafs took full advantage of Ottawa’s inexperience, netting three goals past rookie goaltender Mads Sogaard in the second period to put the game away. The third one by Radim Zohorna was a killer, coming after a pretty strong sequence by the Senators. Jake McCabe chipped the puck to Zohorna, near the left circle, and the winger scored his first as a Maple Leaf on a wrist shot to the short side that Sogaard would have expected to stop. But didn’t. 

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Turns out Sogaard had been feeling ill even before the game, and he was gone by the third period, the last goaltending calamity of this season that has seen six different Ottawa netminders. Cam Talbot finished up the third, stopping all four shots he faced. 

“He tried to gut it out,” head coach D.J. Smith said of Sogaard with his illness. “He couldn’t, but what are you going to do? We’ve got to find a way to win tomorrow. It’s that simple.”

Despite a strong first period, with the Senators outshooting the visitors 10-5 and controlling play, they had nothing to show for it. Goaltender Ilya Samsonov was sharp when he had to be. Through the night, Tkachuk, Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Gambrell all had prime chances and couldn’t score. Jake Sanderson had seven of Ottawa’s 30 shots, as the Sens outshot the Leafs 30-20. Tkachuk had five shots.

“My job is to put the puck in the net and I didn’t do that,” Tkachuk said. “I need to bear down in those situations at this point of the season.”

At times, the game looked like a Saturday night in North Dakota, with the Senators dressing four former UND players in Sanderson, Tyler Kleven, Jacob Bernard-Docker and Shane Pinto. Sanderson and Pinto have been in Ottawa all season, but Kleven just left school and was playing in his second NHL game. Bernard-Docker was called up from AHL Belleville due to Hamonic’s injury suffered against Philadelphia Thursday. 

It was the youngest D-corps the Senators have iced all season. Considering Erik Brannstrom is just 23, four of the starting six were 23 or younger. Sanderson is the youngest at 20. Kleven is 21. Bernard-Docker, 22. Sanderson played 26:38 after seeing 27:49 worth of ice time on Thursday. He was a rock as usual, while the newer kids faced challenges against a top team like the Leafs. 

“There’s two sides to that (youth),” said veteran defenceman Nick Holden. “They’re excited to be playing and so you use that energy. Also, them not knowing the systems and stuff like that – on some of the plays Toronto was able to work with that. But I think that’s a non-factor. We worked hard.”

This was Bernard-Docker’s 27th NHL start. He thought he was playing a three games in three days scenario with the B-Sens until he got the call. 

“We’re in a playoff race (AHL), every game is important down there and same deal up here,” Bernard-Docker said. “I wanted to help my team in Belleville, obviously, but I’m not going to complain about a callup to the NHL.”

Bernard-Docker is very familiar with three of his Ottawa teammates. 

“It’s kind of crazy, it’s a cool story,” he said. “Two years ago, we were all in the same lineup at North Dakota.”

With the Leafs in town and Ottawa’s young team learning on the fly, the mind does wander to a time when future Battle of Ontario meetings — both regular season and post-season — might be raging. 

Next spring will mark — stunningly — 20 years since the Sens and Leafs met in a playoff battle. 

With the Leafs at or close to their peak, how long will it be before these young Senators are ready to take the next step to being a serious playoff contender? With the likes of Tim Stützle, Sanderson, Tkachuk and Drake Batherson still in their early 20s, it is easy to imagine the Senators giving Toronto all it can handle – very soon. 

Team after team comes into this building saying the same thing: watch out for the Senators in the years to come. 

Smith doesn’t disagree.

“I was in Toronto (as an assistant) when they were the young kids, when Mitch (Marner) and (Auston) Matthews were Timmy’s age and now here they are, the big dogs of the league,” Smith said. “We’ve got some guys, in two, three more years, are going to be right there.

“And we’ve got a lot of good, young players coming up. We’ve got some guys that, right now and as they go forward, are going to make it more difficult for those guys (the Leafs). They’re not quite a finished product, but they’re right there and we want to be there.”

Surgery for Brassard

As expected, the news on forward Derick Brassard was not great. After getting tangled up with Flyers goaltender Felix Sandstrom on Thursday, Brassard suffered a broken fibula. Smith said Brassard was being operated on Saturday morning and that the recovery time is at least six to eight weeks. 

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Brassard, 35, came to camp on a PTO, made the team and has been a great addition in his second stint with the Senators. He scored 13 goals and was a regular on the second power play unit. If Thursday was his final game, it would be a lousy way for Brassard’s career to end. And yet, what a final season, making the Senators roster as a walk-on and playing the 1,000th game of his NHL career. 

“When any one of your players gets severely injured, it impacts not only the bench but the whole staff,” Smith said. “We’re like a family. We hang out how many days a year and to watch a guy screaming like that, is not ideal. With (Anton) Forsberg and Brass, a couple of serious injuries, and especially with where (Brassard) is in his career, he has to make that decision. 

“But he’s given us a lot of games and he’s provided a lot of leadership. He had a heck of a year and we’re going to miss him.”

Ridly Greig, coming off a bruised sternum, replaced Brassard in the lineup versus the Leafs. 

The news on defenceman Travis Hamonic, who also left Thursday’s game with a lower body injury, was more promising. Smith said Hamonic might see action again before the season is over. The same goes for defencemen Thomas Chabot (wrist) and Jakob Chychrun (groin).  

Sogaard did not make the trip to Columbus, so the Senators will call up a goaltender Sunday to back up Talbot. 

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