The Sens Opening Weekend: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
There was a lot to like about the Ottawa Senators' opening weekend against Toronto. And there were also - speaking politely - things that need work.
While most predicted a Toronto sweep, the Sens managed a split, opening with a 5-3 win Friday, then falling 3-2 in the rematch on Saturday night. In fact, for a team that hadn't played a game in 10 months and had half its roster switched out from last season, there were a lot of good things. But there's also no question the rebuild remains a work in progress.
So, here's the good, the bad and the ugly from the Sens' opening weekend.
Matt Murray: Parts of both games were absolutely dominated by Toronto both in puck possession and shot attempts. But the new Sens' goalie made Toronto earn every goal they got. It's only two games, but Murray already seems a clear upgrade on what the Sens have been trucking out there in goal the past three years. The two-time Cup winner always seemed to be in good position, calm and square to the puck.
Nick Paul: What a tale of resilience. In the past, Ottawa has sent Paul to the minors 14 different times and placed him on waivers on multiple occasions as well. Finally, at age 24, something clicked for Paul last season and he started looking like a man who believed himself. Everyone knows that kids develop at different rates but it seems to be a fact that's sometimes forgotten in hockey. If you aren't rocking within 3 or 4 years of your draft day, you're a bust. Not always true - see, Mika Zibanejad - and hopefully the Sens keep it mind with Logan Brown, who's three year younger than Paul. Paul was in the discussion as the Sens best forward from the weekend but DJ Smith, in violation of his own "best players play" rule, gave him just over 12 minutes of ice time in last night's loss.
Physical Play: The Sens have more guys capable of winning battles this season. Some of the younger guys like Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson look stronger. Tkachuk has always been that guy, but Batherson, in particular, is playing with a lot more swagger. Newcomers like Austin Watson, Braydon Coburn and Josh Brown have all added a physical element as well.
Tim Stützle: His first career NHL goal last night was a thing of beauty. Thomas Chabot slapped at the puck at Toronto's blueline. The puck deflected high off a Leaf defender about 30 feet into the air. Stützle settled under it like a centrefielder and, the split second the puck hit the ice, he one-timed it, short-side past Leaf goalie Jack Campbell. A unique goal for what's sure to be a special player. Stützle (or Jimmy Stü, as some teammates are calling him) is in the mode of measuring out what works and what doesn't in the NHL. In junior and Germany, everything worked. But I bet he's not in that mode for very long.
I've never been a huge fan of changing the lineup after a win and I would NEVER do it when I'm playing the exact team I'd just beaten a night earlier. It's almost disrespectful to winning, which is really freaking hard. "Yes," fictional coach says. "It was a winning lineup but I can make it even better." Unless you have a star player ready to be inserted into the lineup, why muck with it? The only conclusive data you have is that the lineup from last night beat the team you're playing tonight. There's plenty of time for tinkering after a loss or when you're facing a new opponent. By the way, Colin White and Mike Reilly entered the lineup and neither player was remotely noticeable.
Josh Norris and Evgenii Dadonov both made a mess of open net scoring opportunities on Saturday night. Norris missed the net completely. Dadonov had a third period, tying goal on his stick on a nice pass from Brady Tkachuk and the entire glove side was wide open. Dadonov went far side, probably thinking Campbell had already made his move. He hadn't.
Officiating: On Friday, the Leafs got to hang on to a goal that, during video review, appeared to be a high stick from every angle. On Saturday, there were two moments. Tim Stützle took a phantom penalty after Jake Muzzin tripped over Stützle's skates in a race for the puck. This came moments after Muzzin had knocked Stützle down. It was clear interference or cross-checking. Take your pick.
But the bigger penalty was the one on Sens defenceman Josh Brown, a holding penalty on Alex Kerfoot. Kerfoot was in all alone and Brown used his long reach to try and reach around and poke check him. The unofficial rule there is ANY attempt at competing for the puck on a breakaway is a penalty. Super soft call but, okay, fine. Brown received a holding penalty. Moments after the ensuing power play, where Matthews scored what would be the game-winning goal, Dadonov was in all alone and the Leafs defender did exactly what Brown had done - a long, one handed long poke check attempt. No call? Okay then.
Special teams and systems. The 5 on 3 set up looked like bantam house league passing drill. Slow, entirely on the perimeter with no attack at all. Even the 5 on 4, the Sens power play had a hard time, particularly on the breakout. When things got glitchy in the neural zone, there was no ability to improvise and a lot of time was wasted with long retreats to reset the entire breakout from scratch. In Game 1, the 5 on 5 D-zone coverage was so passive, you'd be forgiven if you thought the Sens were trying to kill off a penalty. It got better as the weekend went on, but the Leafs skill players still had way too much room to operate, badly outshooting and outchancing the Sens.
In Ottawa's defence, with such a short camp, such a long off-season and so many new bodies, there hasn't been enough time to do all the work that needs to be done before a season. Not even close. And a split against Toronto is a big positive. It only gets better from here.