NHL

Strong Start to the Season for the Ottawa Senators

Two weeks into the season, and where are the Ottawa Senators? Against most predictions, the season’s start has been a strong one. The Sens are 4-1-0 through their first five games.

Their season opener was a grinder against Nashville, resulting in their (so far) only loss of the season, 3-2. Kyle Turris and Alex Chiasson scored for Ottawa, while Craig Anderson stopped 34 of 37 shots. The first win of the season came in Tampa Bay, again by a score of 3-2, but this time in a shootout. The Lightning and the Senators traded the lead throughout the game, with Ottawa goals by Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone coming in the third period. Mika Zibanejad scored the winner in the shootout. Robin Lehner took the net duties in this one, stopping 38 of 40 shots through 65 minutes of play, and 2 of 3 shots in the shootout. The third game, and their last of their opening road trip, was more of a snoozer against the Florida Panthers. The Senators managed to eke out a 1-0 victory, with Clarke MacArthur picking up the only goal and Craig Anderson pulling the shut out.

In the home opener, the Colorado Avalanche got out to an early 2-0 lead in the first period. Ottawa managed to fight back to 2-1, and then from 3-1 to end the game 5-3, thanks to goals by Zack Smith (which would have been Curtis Lazar’s first goal had he not helped it over the line), David Legwand, Bobby Ryan, MacArthur and Chris Neil, into an empty net. While Anderson took the home opener, Lehner played against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday night. This was almost the reverse of the Colorado game. Ottawa got up 2-0 on goals by Legwand and Karlsson, only to let Columbus come back and tie it up. Mike Hoffman ended up getting the game winning goal with 10:22 left in the third period.

Despite the great record so far, fans are right to be wary of this team. Three of the four victories have been by one goal, and the exception was only because of an empty net. The Senators never seem to have full control of the game and have not yet been able to drive the momentum of the games. They respond rather than forcing the other team to respond to them. They are getting fantastic goaltending from both goalies, who have looked confident through the first five. While that formula can work in a shortened season, as it did in 2013, trying to make that work over 82 games is incredibly risky.

There has also been some shuffling of the lines. While Ryan originally was put with Turris and MacArthur on the top line, it wasn’t long before Stone replaced him, as predicted. Stone and Turris are developing chemistry on that top line while the connection between Turris and MacArthur seems to have suffered a bit over the summer. It may also be because they are now officially the top line and are facing the opposition’s top defence.

Colin Greening and Erik Condra both started the season sitting in the press box, but they did get their chance as well. Lazar and Hoffman both sat against Florida. Greening failed to impress and was back in the press box the next game, but Condra played his game well. He plays solid defensively and had a few good chances on the net. That earned him a spot in the home opener as well, but he was again replaced by Hoffman against Columbus.

The two newest forwards, Hoffman and Lazar, have been playing up to their potential. Hoffman has already had a couple of breakaways on the season. He is fast and he is an intelligent player. The goal he scored against Columbus was a highlight-reel goal, as he got around two defensemen and then fooled Sergei Bobrovsky. Lazar, for the moment, is playing on the third line and is thriving. He’s yet to score a goal (again, thanks to Zack Smith), but when he is on the ice, he creates chances. He is not a big player, but throws his body around as though he is. When his line is on, other teams have had a hard time getting anything going.

The biggest question for Ottawa in the early going has been the defence. Jared Cowen has once again been benched in favour of Patrick Wiercioch, who isn’t playing that well either. Through the first three games, Cowen was making bad decisions with the puck. He was giving it away and had difficulty recovering from his mistakes. The worst part of all of this is that Cowen, in an interview, said that he didn’t know why he was being scratched. He doesn’t even know that he isn’t playing well, which doesn’t bode well for him improving. In the meantime, Wiercioch is taking his spot on the line up. He seems to be improving, but has difficulty controlling the puck. For a player whose outlet passes were one of his upsides, he’s been bobbling the puck far too often. The only solution right now, given that neither of these players would be great trade bait with the way they’re playing, is for Marc Methot to get healthy, and fast.

The other slow start to the season belongs to Bobby Ryan. He’s only scored one goal through the first five games and hasn’t had a lot of shots on net. Don’t be too concerned, though. Ryan traditionally starts slow. He’s also on a line with Zibanejad and they haven’t found each other quite yet. Zibanejad’s line has had the most difficulty getting out of the Senators’ zone with the puck. One of the possibilities for that difficulty, according to Senstats, is the handedness on that line. With Chiasson, Zibanejad and Ryan on the same line, during the breakout, Zibanejad has two options. He can send a backhand pass to Chiasson, which he can catch on his forehand, or he can send a forehand pass to Ryan, which he would have to catch on his backhand.

All in all, it’s a mixed bag to start the season. It’s a great record with great goaltending, but every game has shown there are still holes that need to be filled in the Ottawa Senators’ game. The next game is tomorrow night, when the Sens host the Toronto Maple Leafs (2-3-1). The keys to that game are going to be controlling Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, who have traditionally played very well against Ottawa. As long as the goaltending stays as strong as it is, the Senators will always have a chance to win games.

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