OTTAWA – As it usually is in the life of a Sens fan, it’s been a roller coaster start to the season for Ottawa. Just seven games in, they’ve already dealt with their fair share of injuries; that have had a varied amount of impacts to their lineup, and they’ve taken what has felt like almost every game past the 60-minute mark.
That has been just four of their first seven games that have gone to overtime or a shootout – three shootouts in their first three games (where they were winners of just one) and a tougher comeback overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils on Thursday.
And while everyone loves to evaluate what the early goings of a club’s record can mean for the long term stretch of an 82-game season, there are lots of positives to focus on in the opening weeks for a club that’s coming off a surprise push that landed them in a game 7 overtime situation in the Eastern Conference Finals just a handful of months ago.
Push past the struggles while putting points on the board
Yes, it’s frustrating when a team fails to close out a game. The Senators’ lead the league in overtime losses – with three – but at this point in the season, the ‘it’s early’ card is still a very valid one to play. And at the same time, whether or not Ottawa has struggled in the extra time department, those points they continue to collect have them behind the Maple Leafs in the divisional standings, which – yes, I’ll say it in October – would put them in a playoff spot right now.
“You could also have three games where you have zero points,” said Head Coach Guy Boucher earlier this week when asked whether frustration creeps in when these early games have slipped away. “We rack up the points and that’s what you need to do. If you get points every game, you’re going to make [the] playoffs. There’s always two ways to see it.”
The bottom line? Nine points in seven games including a three-game winning streak on a Canadian west coast road trip for the first time in franchise history (without Erik Karlsson, I might add) is a start to the season I would take, and likely you would too. There’s no panic in the organization about the losses either, because they know things like late game turnovers are fixable with time and hopefully a healthier lineup can help that along as the season progresses.
Zack Smith the latest casualty
That injury side of things hasn’t been easy. Starting the year off without their best player was certainly Ottawa’s biggest test so far, but they can’t seem to catch a break. Zack Smith’s upper body injury that has him out for roughly a week adds to the missing names of Colin White and Ben Harpur, who have returned to practice in non-contact uniforms after missing time. Meanwhile, there’s still no sign of return from D Mark Borowiecki. But the hope to stay healthy stretches far beyond putting forward a solid lineup night after night.
In terms of development, specifically looking at Thomas Chabot, he’s been travelling back and forth from the team’s AHL affiliate in Belleville. The injury trouble hasn’t allowed him to settle with either group and work towards establishing himself at the professional level after an impressive camp and World Junior performance that caught lots of attention regarding his offensive finesse.
Meanwhile youngster Logan Brown hasn’t seem much icetime as Boucher’s lineup decisions – cutting the traditional 12 forwards and 6 defenceman to 11 and 7 – have offered him more seats in the press box as of late. And the latest call up due to Smith’s injury sees Chris DiDomenico get a chance at some NHL action for the first time this year. He’s leading the Belleville Senators with three goals and five points in just four games.
Netting it when needed and shutting the door
Perhaps some of the most positive angles of Ottawa’s game have come from the powerplay, which has seen drastic improvements after getting off to a miserable start. They sit in the bottom half of the league in 17th place, but hold an 18.9% success rate. That’s right around last year’s league average for scoring with the man advantage. And Karlsson’s return seems to have given their system a much more aggressive and shot-focused approach.
But just as impressive as their ability to re-jolt their powerplay has been their early on success with the penalty kill, and keeping pucks out of their own net.
With a 95.2% success rate on the PK, Ottawa is atop the league’s best in that category, trailing only the Los Angeles Kings, who sit at 95.8%. A far cry from a struggling Senators’ penalty kill last season that finished the year in 22nd place with 79.7%. And with that, the club sits among the best in keeping the puck out of their net. Compared to seven games into the season last year, more improvements. 16 goals against (3rd best in the league) right now, where that number was 25 a year ago. This year’s stats amount to a 2.29 goals against per game average.
And you can bet Boucher knows it.
“If you look at last year after seven games and you look at this year, we’re ahead in every department.”
He’s not worried about overtime losses or a slow start at home, and there’s no reason to be yet. Maybe by this time next week if the Sens have yet to win a home game, we’ll have a different conversation.