When Thomas Chabot was unable to play against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 18, the Ottawa Senators looked lifeless, like the backbone of their team had been removed. And that might not be that far off – Chabot has easily been the team’s top defenseman this season, leading the team with an average ice time over 25 minutes a night, and appearing in the top five of most other categories, whether offensive or defensive. But then the Senators hosted the Montreal Canadiens, and despite missing one of their best players, they managed to secure a hard-fought win.
Chabot returned on Feb. 23 to face the Canadiens again, helping the Senators win their second-straight game and put together their most successful run in 2020-21. However, what’s more impressive is that this team is starting to come together and get more support from the rest of their roster, instead of just a few stars. We’ve already seen Nikita Zaitsev and Nick Paul step up this season, but now Connor Brown, Mike Reilly, and Colin White are contributing meaningfully after some slow starts. All of a sudden, this season doesn’t look all that hopeless anymore.
That’s not to say that this is suddenly a playoff team – there’s still quite a ways to go before they will be ready to challenge for the Stanley Cup – but the Senators are starting to show that they are growing and developing right on schedule. Josh Norris has been one of the best rookies this season, while Tim Stützle isn’t that far behind, and Artyom Zub looks right at home in his first North American season. This team was predicted to be a fun one to watch, and after a very rough start, we finally are seeing that. Here are some other items that are also catching fan’s attention.
Item One: Was it a Goal?
The Senators defeated the Canadiens for the second game in a row and the third time this season, winning 5-4 in a shootout, but the victory wasn’t without controversy. In the dying seconds of the third period, with the game tied at 4, Brendan Gallagher tipped the puck past a scrambling Matt Murray, seemingly securing the win for the Canadiens. But the scrum in front of the net prompted the referees to call for a review, and after a short delay, the call on the ice was reversed and Gallagher was penalized for goaltender interference.
The Senators were no doubt relieved, as the change allowed them to surge back and win the game in a shootout, thanks to goals from Norris and Stützle. Gallagher, however, was far from passive after the game, blasting the call for its apparent inconsistency. “I have time to reset,” he said during the post-game press conference. “Can’t tell me the goalie doesn’t have time to reset…We watch this video, the refs watch this video. For some reason, this one, this example is different. I don’t know why. To me, it’s ruining the product. I don’t know, we need consistency.”
But the video doesn’t seem as cut and dry as Gallagher suggests. In the span of four seconds, Gallagher goes through the crease, nudging Murray and falling down himself, taking down Nikita Zaitsev and Colin White with him, all right on the edge of the crease. That seems clear enough to call goaltender interference, but it also seems true that Murray had time to reset after the penalty, as there was no one in his crease for at least two seconds before the goal. Hockey is an incredibly fast-paced game, and plays can happen in the blink of an eye. The refs made a tough call, and this time, it favored the Senators, which hasn’t happened all that much this season.
That didn’t stop Canadiens’ fans from rushing to Twitter to express their frustration and displeasure over the call and using this play to criticize coach Claude Julien’s deployment. Then, early Wednesday, it was announced that Julien, along with assistant coach Kirk Muller, had been fired. The announcement came as a surprise despite the tough loss, as the Canadiens have been one of the top teams in the North Division this season, winning nine games and sporting a 0.611 win percentage. Was it because of the controversial disallowed goal? We may never know, although general manager Marc Bergevin blamed a troubling pattern he witnessed and decided to get ahead of it.
Item Two: Brannstrom Nets His First
Before the controversy erupted between the Senators and Canadiens, another big moment occurred late in the second period. With Ottawa up 2-1 and on the powerplay, defenseman Erik Brannstrom fired a shot from high in the slot, beating Carey Price through traffic, and giving him his first NHL goal in his 40th game. In the past two seasons, he recorded four assists, all in 2019-20, and had notched two more this season. But the first goal is always special. “It feels great,” he said. “It’s taken a while and I’ve been shooting more and more and I was glad to see it go in this time.”
While it may not have been Brannstrom’s best game – he was benched for the rest of the third period after getting beat by Tyler Toffoli which led to the Canadiens takings a 4-3 lead – he was still one of the top performers for the Senators. In just over 12 minutes of ice time, the second-lowest on the team, he had five shots on goal, the second-highest total. He also returned to the ice in the three-on-three overtime along with Chabot and Mike Reilly on defense.
Brannstrom was then reassigned to the taxi squad, which caught many off guard, but was recalled to the main roster early Thursday, meaning that the move was likely just a money-saving maneuver. He has proven that he deserves to be on the Senators this season, and his presence makes this team better, despite some defensive inconsistencies, which are likely will iron themselves out with age and experience.
Item Three: Stepan Placed on IR
The Senators made another move on Thursday, placing Derek Stepan on the injured reserve. The veteran center has had a rough start to the 2020-21 season, scoring a goal in his first game then going scoreless over the next 19, and facing criticism for his lackluster play. It was then revealed that he was having a difficult time adjusting due to his family still being in Arizona, and while it was never reported he asked for a trade, the Senators began looking into moving him in order to get him closer to home.
Then, two and a half minutes into the game Wednesday night, Stepan left the ice with a reported upper-body injury. While the team has not revealed anything officially, Shawn Simpson of TSN1200 reports that it likely is a dislocation, which could need surgery and take four to six months for recovery. The placement on IR hints that the injury is significant, and if the rumors are true, then it’s likely Stepan’s season is done. If that’s the case, then the trade for him looks even worse, as it’s unlikely re-signs with the team (it was unlikely he was ever going to be re-signed), and may put Pierre Dorion in some hot water.
Item Four: Chlapik Placed on Waivers to be Bought Out
The Belleville Senators had a very busy start to the week. They finally got confirmation from the Ontario government that the AHL would be allowed to play in the province, allowing them to confirm their 2020-21 schedule. They also announced that they would play their home games for the foreseeable future from the Canadian Tire Center in Ottawa, rather than at the CAA Arena in Belleville. The hope is that they can eventually return, as sharing the ice with the NHL Senators will crowd up the ice time, but it will make reassignments much easier for the organization.
Speaking of which, two major ones were announced on Thursday, as the Senators announced Logan Brown and Matthew Peca were recalled to the taxi squad, and Filip Chlapik was placed on waivers for the purpose of being released from his contract. The 2015 second-rounder appeared in 57 games with the team over four seasons, scoring five goals and 11 points and establishing himself as a solid defensive forward who could be plugged into the bottom six. In October, he re-signed a one-year, two-way contract that was very much a now-or-never deal, encouraging him to prove himself in order to stay with the organization.
But after two AHL games and an NHL game, the Senators have decided to part ways with the Czech center. While it hardly appears a fair sample size, the team currently has a lot of center depth and therefore Chlapik wouldn’t have got many opportunities this season. However, there were plenty of spots available in Belleville, and with the recall of Brown, the AHL roster was especially weak at center. Now was the perfect time to show his skills in a top-line role.
There may be more to the story, though. Chlapik began the season playing for his hometown HC Sparta Praha in the Czech Republic, and with the coronavirus still running rampant across parts of Ontario, it’s possible he expressed some desire to return home to be closer to family, to which Dorion likely was happy to oblige. Still, it’s never a good look to let a second-round pick go for nothing, and with the Stepan situation looking worse every day, the move will not be a good look for the Senators.
Item Five: UND Wins Second Penrose Cup
The Senators got another encouraging sign for the future as the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks won back-to-back Penrose Cups with a 7-1 thrashing of the University of Omaha last Saturday. The Cup is awarded to the top team in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and for two seasons now, UND has been dominant. In 2019-20, they sailed to a 26-5-4 record and were set to take on the Colorado College Tigers before the playoffs were canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. They weren’t slowed down at all by the delay and shortened season, posting a 17-4-1 so far in 2020-21, and they still have two games to play.
The Fighting Hawks’ success is greatly encouraging for the Senators’ future, as several of their top prospects play on the team. Shane Pinto led the team in goals in both seasons, and Jacob Bernard-Docker has been a force on the blue line, and his three-point night in the Cup-clinching game earned him Defensemen of the Week honors. They were joined by Jake Sanderson and Tyler Kleven this season, who also played crucial roles on the defense despite being the two youngest players on the roster. To see so many Senators prospects play crucial roles on a top college team is a great sign for things to come.
What’s Next for the Senators?
All eyes will be on Brown as he waits for his big break this season – will he be slotted into the lineup in the next few games, or will he be shuffled back to the minors after practicing with the Senators for a week or so? His deployment has admittedly been confusing, but with the players finding their rhythm now, it’s difficult to question management’s decisions too harshly at this point.
Ottawa starts their first three-game series against the Calgary Flames on Thursday night, and the hope is that the momentum for the Canadiens will carry over to their new opponents. The Flames haven’t had the season they were hoping for so far, but Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk continue to be dangerous offensive forces, and both David Rittich and Jacob Markstrom have been solid in net. The Senators will need to come out guns blazing in order to survive against them.