After stumbling out of the gate with back-to-back losses, the Ottawa Senators are beginning to look like a team that could make some noise this season.
The Sens have won their last three games in convincing fashion to boost their record to 3-2.
The team is scoring at a rate of 4.2 goals per game. That might be a tough number to sustain through 82 games, but anything close to it would be a huge improvement over the measly 2.7 goals per game the Sens scored last season.
Homegrown players Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson have each tallied eight points. And Shane Pinto, who seems destined to be a Calder Trophy finalist, has already notched four goals.
The team’s two biggest off-season acquisitions – Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat – have combined for nine points and appear to be rounding into form.
Then there’s the surprising output of another newcomer, NHL journeyman Tyler Motte, who has five points.
The spike in offence has been aided by the Sens’ performance in the face-off circle.
The team is one of the early leaders, winning 56.1 per cent of draws in its first five games. That’s a massive jump from last season (47.9 per cent) and the COVID-shortened 2020-21 campaign (47.4 per cent).
There’s no doubt the addition of Giroux, one of the game’s best face-off men, has helped move the needle in this category. But it’s actually Pinto and Josh Norris (58.8 and 57.9 per cent, respectively) who are leading the team on draws.
Of course, it’s not just the Senators’ forwards who’ve made a splash so far.
Defenceman Erik Brannstrom has dramatically elevated his game, especially in his own zone.
It’s no secret the diminutive Brannstrom has been on the losing end of a lot of physical battles during his relatively brief NHL career. But we’re seeing a different approach from him this season. He’s defending more aggressively, more physically, and more consistently.
No, Brannstrom isn’t dishing out punishing bodychecks. In fact, he’s only recorded two hits so far. But he’s doing a much better job of tying up his man, standing his ground, and pushing back against opponents looking to get the better of him.
General manager Pierre Dorion has repeatedly said he’d like to acquire a top-four defenceman. But if Brannstrom keeps performing at a top-four level, it might be safe for Dorion to drop out of the Jakob Chychrun sweepstakes and focus instead on signing fan favourite Artem Zub to a much-deserved contract extension.
Elsewhere on the blue line, Jake Sanderson has been even better than advertised, Travis Hamonic and Nick Holden have been quiet but effective, and Thomas Chabot seems to be finding his feet after a bumpy start.
Between the pipes, goaltender Anton Forsberg is earning every penny of that multi-year deal he signed with the club in March. He looks more than capable of holding the fort until Cam Talbot comes back from injury and lightens the load.
Of course, no team gets through any significant amount of playing time without suffering injuries. Norris, who left the game against the Coyotes in obvious pain and frustration, may be the first regular season example of this for the Senators.
Hopefully, it’s not a long-term situation. But if it is, fans should thank the hockey gods that Sens management gave Derick Brassard a contract after a solid PTO with the team in training camp.
Brassard is long in the tooth and has never been as pure a goal scorer as Norris. But he is a dependable veteran with offensive upside who could easily slide into the third-line centre position. Pinto could then take Norris’s spot between Giroux and DeBrincat, limiting the damage to the Sens’ top-six firepower.
In addition to the Norris situation, another source of potential concern for ownership and management is the steep drop-off in attendance following the sold-out home opener against Boston.
Team captain Brady Tkachuk was effusive in his praise for the boisterous 19,811 spectators who packed the arena for the Bruins game. But attendance shrunk to 14,210 for following match against the Capitals and was only 15,107 for the next tilt against the Coyotes.
With the team finally spending near the salary cap, and players living up to the lofty expectations placed on them this year, fans need to hold up their end of the bargain and pack the arena on a regular basis.
By Scott Costen | Sens Nation Hockey