Consider this the real Ottawa Senators home opener.
That Oct. 14 game versus the Toronto Maple Leafs was just a dress rehearsal.
For here was Ottawa winger Brady Tkachuk, finally wreaking havoc again, his massive form beneath the No. 7 jersey crashing into San Jose Sharks players all night long.
And here was goaltender Matt Murray, starting his first game of the season after missing the first three Senators games because of flu symptoms.
As will sometimes happen in sports, the feature attraction gets stolen by the sub-plot — in this case a 2-1 Sharks victory and an early departure by centre Shane Pinto due to an upper-body injury. Senators head coach D.J. Smith said afterward that he doesn’t believe the injury is serious.
Tkachuk had said he wanted to simplify his game, but made no promises about easing into his first game action since signing his new seven-year contract on Oct. 14, the day Ottawa played host to Toronto in the home and season opener. This was a night for robust hockey, which suited Tkachuk just fine.
“There was definitely a high-pace there, it was an emotional game so I had to be on it right from the start,” Tkachuk said. “I felt better throughout the game, but it was definitely an adjustment.”
Beforehand, Tkachuk had said he was going to try to keep things simple.
“Move it, skate to get open and make life easier for Josh (Norris) and Drake (Batherson).”
Of course, ‘make life easier’ for Norris and Batherson is code for — frighten the bejeezus out of every Shark in sight, let them know that the six-foot-four, 211-pound Tkachuk is back in business.
In the end, Tkachuk played 19:39 and was plus-one with an assist. He had three shots on goal and six hits. The Sharks will tell you it felt like a lot more than six.
For his part, Smith vowed to try to make life easier for Tkachuk, encouraging him to take short shifts, while trying not to over-use his prized forward.
“I always tend to lean on him when I need just about anything,” Smith had said.
He certainly leaned on him in the dying moments, with Murray pulled for an extra attacker and Tkachuk trying to get in position in the blue paint. The Sharks didn’t let that happen, riding out the win.
Murray faced 24 shots and was pretty steady in his first start of the season. He gave credit to the Sharks veterans for making it difficult for him to see pucks.
Despite the loss, Smith had to be pleased with his team’s 31-shot effort, in a game that could have gone either way, while getting Tkachuk and Murray back into the flow.
“He hadn’t played in a long time, but he still had some chances,” Smith said of Tkachuk. “And he’ll continue to get better every night.
“Murr (Murray) made a lot of good saves. He was completely screened on the winner.”
The entire roster was clearly delighted to have Tkachuk back. Ditto for the small crowd of 8,994 at the Canadian Tire Centre, which welcomed Tkachuk’s introduction in the starting lineup with a loud roar.
Wearing an ‘A’ on his home black jersey with the red and gold trim, Tkachuk could be seen mumbling into his glove during the anthems, as though reminding himself of his personal checklist for the evening.
That list apparently included being as physical as possible, because he focused on that aspect of his game above all else.
With two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson in town with the Sharks, the game represented at least a figurative passing of the torch. In fact, many fans on social media thought it would be appropriate to see Karlsson, Ottawa’s last captain before being traded in the fall of 2018, literally hand off the captaincy to Tkachuk in a pre-game ceremony.
Ahhh, that was not going to happen. Karlsson would want no part of such an idea. Nor are the Senators ready yet to put the added pressure of a ‘C’ on Tkackuk’s sweater when he already has the task of living up to that $57.5 million contract after missing all of training camp and the pre-season.
Karlsson did figure into Ottawa’s first goal, as he was caught up ice on the play as Drake Batherson opted to shoot on the resulting two-on-one chance and buried his shot past James Reimer in the San Jose goal.
Karlsson made up for that play by setting up the Sharks’ first goal at even strength. From the point, Karlsson fed ex-Ottawa 67’s captain Logan Couture at the side of the goal for an easy tap in past Murray. It was Karlsson’s first point against his former team in his fourth meeting.
The Senators won an offside challenge to negate a potential Sharks goal by Kevin Labanc and preserve a 1-0 lead after 20 minutes. Murray said later he owed his video coaches a beer for their astute eye detecting the offside.
There was a pall cast on the period by the injury to Pinto, which looked serious at first.
On what seemed a routine shoulder check by San Jose defenceman Mario Ferraro, Pinto crashed heavily into the boards and left the ice favouring his shoulder. The period ended with Ferraro taking a boarding penalty on Ottawa’s Zach Sanford. A scrum ensued and Chris Tierney was sent off for putting a neck hold on Ferraro.
Nice to stand up for a teammate, but that Tierney headlock play cost Ottawa a chance for a five-on-three advantage.
Pinto did return to action in the second period, took a slash to the arm, and left for the room again after one shift. Smith said the injury seems more of a “pain” issue than a bad shoulder injury and hoped Pinto can return to the lineup soon.
While Labanc missed that earlier goal, he did get on the board with the game winner on a one-timer blast during a second period power play.
Alfie in the House: Senators icon Daniel Alfredsson was in the crowd at the CTC to see the return of his pal, Karlsson, but Alfredsson’s presence was not acknowledged on the scoreboard screen.