Ottawa Senators still work in progress but show inconsistency to start season

OTTAWA — From Ottawa Senators’ General Manager Pierre Dorion to head coach D.J. Smith to the players themselves, everyone realizes this season is a work in progress, a stepping stone toward future success.

Nevertheless, after Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers in the team’s home-opener, disappointment was evident throughout the dressing room.

“I hate to lose. I think everyone in this room hates to lose. . . . it sucks. It’s never fun losing,” said sophomore winger Brady Tkachuk, who tallied the Senators’ lone goal and his second in consecutive games.

Smith was a bit more analytical, but the message was still the same.

“Our team has to come out and forecheck, be aggressive. . . . we swung off hits. We didn’t put their [defense] in any kind of trouble. They were hard on us, they had heavy sticks, they finished checks when they had to,” the new Sens bench boss explained. “We have to compete a lot harder, especially in our building. It’s not acceptable to come out here and go through the motions. Our work ethic’s been fine in practice; we just didn’t work hard in the game.”

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So what’s next for Smith and his coaching staff, and what aspects of the Senators’ game requires a makeover in days ahead?

Line tinkering

In actuality, the Senators were the better team playing at even strength Saturday, albeit by a small margin. The club outshot the Rangers, 25-22, and had more shot attempts directed at the net, 53-49.

However, quality scoring opportunities were few and far between.

“We have to get a little bit of cohesion in our lines. There’s no one really clicking other than the [Colin White, Bobby Ryan, Tkachuk] line who gives us a steady presence at the net,” noted Smith. 

Anthony Duclair, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Connor Brown rounded out the top-6 forwards. That combination was a well-balanced one, in theory, however, the trio fell victim to already one of the prettiest tic-tac-toe passing plays of the season, which featured former Senator Mika Zibanejad completing a give-and-go with linemate Pavel Buchnevich.

“I thought we played hard. I thought there were some guys that didn’t play at the level they have to play. It won’t be acceptable,” Smith said. “You’ll either drop down a line or won’t get to play. Going forward, after looking at the tape, we’re going to monitor who we thought was good, and who we didn’t think was great, and we’ll adjust accordingly.”

On this note; rookie winger Drake Batherson and Filip Chlapik were assigned to the Senators’ AHL-affiliate Belleville on Sunday.

After a nondescript training camp and mediocre play through two regular-season games, Batherson will be able to work toward regaining his offensive touch in the AHL. The Nova Scotia resident led the AHL Sens in points last season (62).

While the NHL campaign is less than one week old, Smith will have to find a way to inject more quickness into his lineup – especially among lines three-four – if the team is to ice a more balanced attack.

To this extent, the Senators recalled Vitaly Abramov Monday. If not for a concussion suffered in the preseason, the speedy winger likely would’ve cracked the opening roster out of training camp.

Thursday’s game will represent a homecoming of sorts for Abramov, who played the majority of his junior career across the Ottawa River for the QMJHL’s Gatineau Olympiques.

Tilted ice

The second period has been Ottawa’s kryptonite in recent memory. In 2018-19, the team’s goal differential was minus-31 through the middle frame. In only two starts this season, the differential is already minus-5 (6-1). 

The long change — combined with offensive zone pressure by the opposition — has also resulted in the Senators in being outshot 25-13.

Conversely, the club has broken even over the first and third stanzas, scoring three and allowing three goals.​

Successfully addressing this issue will go a long way in improving team performance.

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Special teams not so special

The Senators’ lack of attention to detail on special teams has been an obvious outlier in the early-going. The team is zero for eight on the power play to date while giving up a shorthanded marker to Zibanejad that completed his hat trick Saturday.

All-Star blueliner Thomas Chabot expressed his thoughts on his team’s power-play woes, saying positioning is among the problems.

“We keep on making little mistakes in details in the o-zone –  where guys should be, and where we should not be. This is a big part of my game. I take pride in the power play, and obviously right now it’s disappointing we’re not doing it the right way.”

Smith was more animated in his feelings.

“Sometimes you take it as a privilege to be on the power play. I didn’t think we worked hard enough,” Smith said. “I didn’t think we were hungry enough on loose pucks. We got beat up bad in the faceoff circles. They cleared the puck, and it was tough to enter. There’s a lot of things that weren’t great [Saturday].”

The Senators’ penalty kill has also been inconsistent. The team killed four of five penalties versus the Maple Leafs in the season opener on Wednesday but allowed the Rangers to strike twice on the man advantage Saturday.

“We can’t make excuses. We can’t get too down. It’s only two games out of 82. I think for us, it’s all about living and learning. It’s all about learning from our mistakes. Just try to get better every day. I think there’s a good opportunity here to learn,” stated the 20-year old Tkachuk.

This must be music to the coaching staff’s ears, which has a lot of work to do in the coming week, as the Sens face the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues and the dominant Tampa Bay Lightning in their next two games.

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