Have the Ottawa Senators finally found the end of their goalie troubles?
Of course, it’s far too early to say anything definitively, but after two games, Filip Gustavsson has been brilliant in the crease and given the Senators some stability after months of inconsistent play. He’s the latest in a long line of youngsters who have been giving this franchise a facelift this season, despite the 12-20-3 record. Josh Norris has kept himself in discussions for the Calder Trophy, Tim Stutzle has looked like a future superstar, and Erik Brannstrom and Artyom Zub look to be the future of the team’s defense. It’s hard not to be excited about what’s to come.
Things have clicked especially well to start the week, too. After losing two very close games to the Vancouver Canucks last week, the Senators swept their two-game series against the Calgary Flames, with offense coming from all across the lineup. If things keep going this way, then the playoffs can’t be too far off.
Item One: 2 Games, 2 Wins for Gustavsson
On Monday night, 22-year-old Gustavsson started his very first NHL game. It was not an ideal situation for the rookie netminder – just a few days prior, backup Joey Daccord had gone down with a leg injury in practice after filling in for an injured Matt Murray, who suffered an upper-body injury before the Mar 19 game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. In an effort to secure their crease, the Senators claimed Anton Forsberg off waivers from the Winnipeg Jets, but that still left Gustavsson as the de facto starter against the Flames. But 60 minutes later, the young Swede had turned away all but one of the Flames’ 44 shots, securing his first win.
He continued to dazzle in his next start two nights later, and though he didn’t face as much rubber in his second game, he was just as brilliant, turning away 28 of 29 shots for a 0.966 save percentage. The best part, however, is it seems that he’s just warming up. “It was like a normal game for me today,” Gustavsson said on Wednesday night after claiming his second victory. “It felt like I did the hard part the last game, so now it’s just start and play.” That relaxed confidence is exactly what the Senators have needed this season in net, and thought they had with Daccord before his injury.
Based on his calm composure and solid play thus far, Gustavsson is well set to a Senators’ record for the best record from the beginning of his career in Ottawa. Ray Emery is the current leader, who went undefeated in his first nine career NHL games, but if only regulation losses are counted, then Andrew Hammond’s 15-game undefeated streak, which included one shootout loss in his sixth game, takes the cake. Mike Brodeur also started his career with the Senators with a three-game win streak in 2009-10, and Jani Hurme went undefeated in his first six games, which included two ties, between 1999-00 and 2000-01.
Item Two: Flames Snag Game-Winning Puck
Gustavsson’s first win wasn’t without controversy, however. At the end of the game, Brady Tkachuk went over to grab the puck in order to commemorate Gustavsson’s first NHL win, but Flames’ defender Rasmus Andersson got there first and picked it up. Tkachuk wasn’t impressed by the move, and a ref had to step in to make sure nothing happened between the two. Andersson eventually tossed the puck aside for Tkachuk to retrieve, but the lack of sportsmanship rubbed many fans from across the NHL the wrong way.
The Flames have had a rough season so far, especially against the Senators. In their six meetings this season so far, the Senators have taken four of the games, despite residing firmly in last place in the division. After their last series at the beginning of March, they fired their head coach Geoff Ward and hired Darryl Sutter in his place. The change behind the bench gave them a much-needed boost and they went on to win four of their next seven games, but it hasn’t eased the bad blood that has emerged between them and Ottawa.
Making it worse is the fact that, in 2019, when Montreal Canadiens’ goalie Cayden Primeau won his first game, Brady Tkachuk snapped up the puck, apparently in an effort to give it to a kid in the stands. Carey Price chased him down and caught him in the hallway to the dressing rooms, but it was a bad look for the Senators’ agitator, despite his claim that Primeau was in on it – the two were teammates in 2016-17 while playing for the US National Development Team. It’s possible that Andersson was giving Tkachuk a taste of his own medicine, but being that it happened to a different team, it was likely just frustration bubbling over. Still, it will make their next meeting all that more heated.
Item Three: Formenton Makes 2020-21 Debut
Another young gun made his long-anticipated season debut this week against the Flames. With Austin Watson out four to six weeks after taking a shot off the thumb in Monday’s game, the Senators’ announced that they had recalled Alex Formenton from the Belleville Senators. Originally a second-round pick in 2017, he was one of the biggest surprises of the 2018-19 season when he made the team right out of camp and lasted nine games before returning to the London Knights. He hasn’t seen NHL action since but has developed into a deadly sniper in the AHL, scoring 27 goals in 61 games last season, tying for fifth league-wide.
In his first game in 2020-21, Formenton was fairly quiet, playing 10 minutes primarily on the fourth line with Clark Bishop and Connor Brown, plus 1:42 on the penalty kill. He ended the game with a minus-1, one shot on goal, two hits, and a block. While the Senators would love to have him in an offensive role, the team has a big gap to fill with Watson’s absence, who was top-five in defensive zone starts and second in blocks and hits. But Formenton is no push-over and has proven to be a difficult player to play against, thanks to his blazing speed, physicality, and grit that could make this a golden opportunity for the future star.
Item Four: Pinto Leads Hobey Baker Race
Shane Pinto had an incredible 2020-21 season with the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks. In 26 games, the center led his team with 15 goals and was third in scoring with 30 points. With him, the Fighting Hawks sailed to a 21-5-1 record and a second-straight National Collegiate Hockey Conference Frozen Faceoff Championship. He raked in the awards, too, and was named the NCHC Best Defense Forward, Forward of the Year, Player of the Year, and to top it all off, was named a top-10 finalist for the NCAA’s Hobey Baker Award, which he currently leads with over 37% of the vote (as of Mar 24).
Fans are encouraged to vote for their choice for the player that shows outstanding skill in all areas of the game, but also demonstrates integrity, character, and scholastic achievement. Currently, Pinto is in a tight race with Dylan Holloway, the Edmonton Oilers’ first-round pick in 2020 and junior star for the University of Wisconsin, who finished his season with 34 points in 22 games and has around 35% of the vote. Pinto’s lead shrunk drastically in the last few days; at the beginning of the week, he had a 15% gap between the second-place nominee.
The Senators have never had a prospect win the prestigious award, but have had several nominated over the years. The most recent was Ryan Dzingel, who was in the top-10 in 2014, while Bobby Butler was the runner-up in 2010. Mike Reilly was also a Hobey Baker nominee in 2015, finishing ninth in voting.
What’s Next for the Senators?
After fending off the struggling Flames, the Senators will turn their attentions back to the Maple Leafs on the 25th, who haven’t been as dominantly lately as they were to start the season. Then they’ll have a four-day break, after it was announced their March 28 game against the Montreal Canadiens has been postponed due to COVID protocols, before hosting the Habs on the 30th.
The Senators have been wracked with injuries, losing three key players in the past week in Murray, Daccord, and Watson. Artem Anisimov has also been ruled out for the foreseeable future with an upper-body injury, with no timetable given as of yet. But with so many gaps across the lineup, management will be eager to bring up some of their promising prospects toiling in the minors. Formenton joined Bishop as the latest call-ups, but don’t be surprised if Logan Brown, Lassi Thomson, or even Jacob Bernard-Docker sneak into a few games as the season winds down in April.
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.