Senators’ News & Rumors: Smith, Sanderson, Watson

The Ottawa Senators ran into an in-form Juuse Saros in their latest defeat, a 3-0 setback at the hands of the Nashville Predators. The Finn produced a 38-save performance to shut out D.J. Smith’s side, a result that leaves the Canadian Tire Centre club seventh in the Atlantic Division.

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“I thought we had a great start, we were all over them, but a really bad turnover changed the momentum of the game,” said Smith of the Senators’ performance. “Then, they scored an ugly goal [to make it 2-0] and we turned another one over in the third period. You can’t shoot yourself in the foot, but we did.”

D.J. Smith Ottawa Senators
D.J. Smith, Head Coach of the Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Senators started the contest on the front foot and raced to an 11-5 advantage in shots through the first 14 minutes of play. However, the Predators then scored twice in 30 seconds to end any hopes of victory from the home team.

After the final buzzer sounded, forward Austin Watson, defenceman Jake Sanderson, and head coach Smith spoke to reporters about the result and overall mood on the eve of the halfway point of the season.

D.J. Smith Backs Senators to Rebound on Road Trip

It is a credit to Smith that he tried to take positives from a night when his team was shut out by a squad fighting tooth and nail to make the playoffs. However, he couldn’t paper over the first-period turnover from Erik Brännström that saw the Predators take the lead.

“I thought there were a lot of guys who played hard, but there were a couple of guys who turned pucks over which ended up in the back of our net and you can’t do that in this league,” the Canadian said, referencing his defenceman’s error. “You have to know that there is a time and a place [for making moves]. You also can’t allow odd-man rushes but we did tonight.”

While the 45-year-old expects his powerplay specialists to bounce back in the weeks ahead, he admitted that the Senators were out of sorts on the man advantage versus Nashville.

“It’s just wasn’t sharp,” said Smith of the powerplay units that failed to score in five attempts. “We didn’t move the puck as quickly as we usually do but we did have some chances. Ryan McDonagh is one of the best penalty killers in the league with the way he blocks shots and reads plays – he clearly did lots of good things.”

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Smith, when asked about his overall mood halfway through the season, immediately looked ahead to his squad’s next opponents: the Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, and St. Louis Blues.

“Well, it’s a huge trip for us,” he said of the three-game road trip that is on the horizon for his squad. “We had the month we had in December, we’re 2-2 in January [so far], and we know that we need to end the month above .500 [points percentage].

“We need to get our game back on the road: our penalty kill will continue to keep the puck out of the net and our power play will score, but five-on-five scoring has been an issue for us. We have chances, [they show up] analytically, but we just haven’t made good on them.

“I think we’re a better team when we’re playing all the time and we’re going to get back to playing every other day and playing back-to-back. I think we’ll be sharper.”

Austin Watson Demands ‘Detail’ From Senators Teammates

Watson produced a blunt summary of the Senators’ defeat to the Predators. Ottawa didn’t execute its game plan effectively, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

“It sucks to lose the game and it sucks to get shut out, but at least the effort and attitude were acceptable,” the 30-year-old told reporters at the Canadian Tire Centre. “We just turned it over too much and they were very strict with their gameplan. Whenever we veered slightly from ours, the puck tended to end up in our net. If we’ve learned anything from our run last month, it’s that we play better when we don’t play run-and-gun.”

When asked about what the Senators’ ideal style should be, he added: “We’re a north-south [team] and we dump and chase. It might not be sexy, but it works for us. We did that for the most part tonight, but we didn’t do it enough.”

Austin Watson Ottawa Senators
Austin Watson, Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Watson, like Smith, also revealed that he is looking forward to the Senators’ upcoming road trip and believes that a change of scenery will help his teammates navigate a busy portion of the season.

“It’s always great to be on the road with the guys, we’ve been at home for a while and it’ll be nice to have a change of scenery,” he explained.  “We talked about it [in the locker room]: we got going on the road because we played north-south hockey.

“It’s really easy to feel good about yourself in this league and think that offence is going to come easy. If we are a little bit more detailed and stick to our gameplan, I think we can win.”

In other words, Watson believes that a road trip – which includes tough games in Colorado and St. Louis – will force the Senators to implement their system with more focus. If history is anything to go by, he has a point.

Senators’ Jake Sanderson Reveals Midseason Tiredness

Sanderson, who has performed excellently in his rookie season, was dejected when he spoke to reporters on Monday (Jan. 9). The Whitefish-born defender took responsibility for not getting enough shots on net – especially on the powerplay.

“I thought we were alright,” said a visibly disgruntled Sanderson. “I felt like we had a few too many turnovers and they capitalised on them. I think, as a defenceman, we have to do a better job of getting our shots through. They had a lot of blocked shots, which is a credit to them, but – as a d-man – you need to use the angle and get them through because we know our forwards are waiting for it.”

When asked about the team’s poor showing on the man-advantage, he added: “I know we can be a lot better. We had chances, but I felt like we could have been crisper on the breakout and entry. There are definitely things we can change for the next game.”

Jake Sanderson Ottawa Senators
Jake Sanderson, Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Sanderson was also asked about the level of psychological strain he is under halfway through his first season as a professional. The American credited his veteran teammates for helping him through a rocky campaign for the team, revealing that they have helped him bounce back from fatigue.

“I feel like you’ve just got to bring it mentally every night,” the rookie said of his experience in the NHL. “There are some games when you’re tired, maybe it’s the second half of a back-to-back, but you need to mentally wrap your head around that it’s going to be a long season. I try my best but there are definitely times when I’m tired. It’s nice that there are older guys I can lean on.”

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Sanderson has carried a heavy load as a first-year professional in Ottawa. Regardless, he remains one of the Senators’ top-performing talents with 14 points (two goals, 12 assists) on the season. It will be interesting to see how he fairs on the road later this week.

Looking Ahead for the Ottawa Senators

The Senators will play their 41st game of the season on Thursday (Jan. 13) on the road versus the Arizona Coyotes. They have a seven-point deficit to overturn to make the playoffs, with four teams between them and the second wildcard spot held by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Senators have zero margin for error in the weeks ahead. They cannot afford another long-term skid and must snap back into form at Mullet Arena next time out. Ottawa, once again, faces a make-or-break portion of the season.