Statistically, March was more of the same for the Ottawa Senators. They posted another losing record, ending the month with five wins and eight losses, including three games that they lost by three or more goals. It’s almost the exact same record as in February, where they had six wins and eight losses in 14 games, with three blowouts.
And yet, this past month felt more successful, didn’t it? Of their five losses, three of them came in overtime. Prior to March, the Senators had only lost once in sudden death, showing how much more competitive the team has gotten in recent weeks. Much of that was thanks to their goaltending, which was surprisingly more consistent despite the injuries to Matt Murray and Joey Daccord. Their veteran forwards, too, have been far more consistent lately, and the young stars keep getting better each day. Unfortunately, there is only a month and a half left of the 2020-21 season; given more time, there’s a chance this team could have closed in on a playoff spot.
Third Star – Mike Reilly
Mike Reilly really improved his game this past month, leading the team in most possession metrics while steadily increasing his ice time, going from 16-17 minutes per game at the start of March to frequently over 20 minutes by the end. He’s also boosting his offensive contributions, recording seven assists over the last 13 games and sits second in defensive point shares with 1.2 and fourth in overall point shares with 1.9. His high-danger Corsi for% is among some of the best in the league, comparable to Cale Makar and Jeff Petry, who is a favourite for the Norris Trophy.
It’s clear that Reilly has earned the trust of coach D.J. Smith, who saw his growth back in February and told TSN 1200 that he “has arguably been our best defenceman maybe for a couple weeks” due to his excellent play off the puck and ability to kill penalties. It’s a massive shift from where he started this season, as he was expected to be a fringe defender and hop in and out of the lineup to give the team’s top prospects some ice time. Yet after a rough start, he’s earned a spot on the top four and has found chemistry with rookie Artyom Zub. While he still is looking for his first goal this season, it’s likely not far away now, especially as his play continues to improve.
Second Star – Ryan Dzingel
Ryan Dzingel was not having a good 2020-21. Originally a 2011 Draft pick by the Senators, the sniper was traded at the 2019 trade deadline after putting up 22 goals and 44 points in 57 games that season, a career-best pace. However, over the next season and a half, he scored just 14 goals in 96 games. This season was shaping up to be another regression with just two goals in 11 games. But the Senators had their own problems with veteran forwards Cedric Paquette and Alex Galchenyuk, so they struck a deal on Feb 14 with the Carolina Hurricanes in a low-risk, win-win deal.
The trade was intended to open up a roster spot for a promising rookie, while Dzingel was expected to provide depth scoring. But when he finally suited up on Mar 4 after his two-week transfer quarantine, he looked like the player he was two seasons ago, scoring a goal in each of his first two games with the team. Four games later, he added a third goal in a winning effort against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he ended the month with two goals in a four-game stretch. His 0.45 goals-per-game puts him on the same pace as Sebastien Aho and above Brock Boeser and Aleksander Barkov. The change of scenery has done wonders for Dzingel, and thanks to the instant chemistry he found with Nick Paul and Colin White, he’ll likely be relied on more to provide scoring for the Senators.
First Star – Filip Gustavsson
He may have only played two games and part of a third, but Filip Gustavsson is easily the first star of the month. The Swedish youngster was fourth down the depth chart to start the season and likely expected to play the majority of the season in the AHL as the Belleville Senators’ starter. But after injuries to Murray and Daccord in the span of a few days, plus the long-term injury to Marcus Hogberg suffered early in the season, Gustavsson was suddenly the de facto starter, despite having zero NHL experience.
And yet, after replacing Daccord late in the third and two starts, Gustavsson had turned away 69 of 71 shots, giving him a goals-against average of 0.86 and a save percentage of 0.973. No Senators’ goalie has posted that high of a save percentage this season in a single game when starting; Murray, Daccord, and Hogberg have posted 1.00’s, but only when playing part of the game and facing less than 10 shots. It’s the best performance we’ve seen in Ottawa from a goalie yet, and while it is far too early to crown him the next starter, Gustavsson may be closer to being a regular in the NHL than anyone thought.
Primed for a Breakout
Clark Bishop has done surprisingly well in his call-up to replace the injured Artem Anisimov. In seven games, he has three assists, was plus-2, and had 11 hits, five blocks, and two takeaways. He was also one of the best Senators in Fenwick possession and started the vast majority of his shifts on defense. While he’s no future star, he’s exactly what this team needs from their bottom-six – a player who consistently gives the team the chance to score in any situation and is consistent in his defensive coverage. With Anisimov now on waivers, Bishop could see his ice time increase and thus his offensive contributions.
Josh Norris and Drake Batherson also had really good months, with both putting up four goals and six points over 13 games. Norris has been especially deadly in the circle, winning 55.0% of 171 faceoffs, and currently leads the team with an average success rate of 53.7% this season. Batherson didn’t quite have as good of a stretch as February, but he still had four goals – the second-highest total for the Senators – and sits second in team scoring and just a single point behind Tkachuk.
April will likely be the biggest challenge for the Senators this season, as the rest of the Scotia North Division will be scrambling to secure a playoff spot. Four teams are within 10 points of each other, and Ottawa faces them all next month. They still have yet to find a win against the Vancouver Canucks, but with four contests scheduled, they may finally find that gap in their defenses and steal a win.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.