It seems the Ottawa Senators were the metaphorical “last straw” before two coaches in the Scotia North Division were fired this season. The Montréal Canadiens’ Claude Julien and Calgary Flames’ Geoff Ward were both ousted the day after their team played the Senators; the Canadiens lost in a shootout 5-4, while the Flames lit up the Senators 7-3 for what still stands as only their second win against the Sens in seven games this season. The Flames have yet to beat the Senators under the Darryl Sutter system, but that’s a worry for those in Calgary.
Of course, it wasn’t the individual games against the Senators that cost Julien and Ward their jobs. It had more to do with timing, but it still plays into a fun and indicative narrative that the Senators are the pests of the North this season.
The Senators wanted to be pests when the puck dropped on the 2020-21 season. Head coach DJ Smith expected his team to play hard regardless of predictions about wins or losses. They handed the power-house Toronto Maple Leafs an early loss; however, the Senators have been a steady thorn in Toronto’s side for years, so it felt like nothing new.
Ottawa then faced a rough end to January when they were humbled by the Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver Canucks, and Edmonton Oilers. They had a few new players and it maybe took them some time to settle into a new system and style. The team struggled on the back end, from defense to goaltending, but they started to see some consistency with the addition of Artem Zub, some promising games from Erik Brännström and, some moments of strength from the goaltenders. They were better than their record indicated, but they quickly lost their identity as a “tough to play against” rebuilding team.
With expectations out the window, the Sens started taking wins from their opponents, including three of four from the Canadiens in February. This is the key. The rest of the teams in the North Division came into the season expecting to push for a playoff spot. The Senators were always meant to be the pests, but it took them some time to figure out what that looked like. Does it mean winning games or just making games tough for their opponent? Does it mean playing heavy or simply making opponents struggle offensively?
It’s not a role you run a system to achieve or look to a model to copy. However, from Ryan Dzingel’s return and scoring spree, Clark Bishop’s grinding minutes, and first NHL wins from third and fourth string goaltenders, Joey Daccord and Filip Gustavsson, the Senators have started to wreak havoc on the division.
According to Hockey-reference.com, the Senators have a .500 or higher points percentage (PTS%) against three teams in the North. Two of them (the Canadiens and Maple Leafs) appear to be playoff-bound. Ottawa has also posted an even goal differential against Montréal in five games and only a minus-3 differential against Toronto in seven games. The games are close when they lose, which includes five regulation losses over 12 games combined, where the Sens have stolen 13 points off two tough opponents.
It’s starting to look like the playoff teams are set in the North, but the Senators are going to continue to cause a stir as teams jostle for position. The Flames are desperate and the Canucks are in tough to push for a spot as most teams have games in hand. Besides a stretch of six games in nine days at the end of April when Ottawa plays the two teams immediately above them in the standings, the rest of their 14 games are against the four teams sitting in a playoff spot. Interestingly, only the Maple Leafs have played the Senators since they’ve gained newfound confidence whcih stems from their high-flying third and fourth-string goaltenders.
The Maple Leafs needed overtime to squeeze out a victory against the Senators, who were on the second night of a back-to-back. The Canadiens, Oilers, and Jets have not faced Gustavsson or Anton Forsberg, who have both played very well. Gustavsson, who entered in relief of Daccord for his first taste of NHL action, has a .973 save percentage (SV%) over his two and one-third appearances, while Forsberg has a .927 SV% after his game against the Maple Leafs, which was also his first NHL game in over a calendar year. It’s a small sample size, but it’s one of the few stretches this season when Ottawa has been a threat throughout 60 minutes of consecutive games. Indeed, it’s a boost offence that should be at the top of DJ Smith’s wish list of late.
The top spot in the division is not locked up, and though home ice may not have the same power without fans in the arena, those playoff-bound teams are still fighting for higher seeding. The Senators are playing freely while also getting a look at what they have in some of their younger players. Their drive is coming from their young goalies, from rejuvenated players like Dzingel and players who want to prove their worth, like Alex Formenton. With their new-found confidence, Ottawa will play spoiler over the final six weeks of the season.
Implications Beyond this Season
This pest role shouldn’t be a temporary reality for the team. As they find their footing and head into the 2021-22 season, the pressure will slowly increase, but the drive to grind out games doesn’t have to dissipate. The difference between being a hard team to play against at the top of the division and a hard team to play against at the bottom of it is simply a matter of time. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, and St. Louis Blues were grinding out tough games they weren’t expected to win before they became perennial playoff teams and, eventually, Stanley Cup Champions.
As we reach the final stretch of the season, teams will solidify their identity and play more cohesively. The pest identity can suit even a top-tier team. Overtime or the shootout will start to go the Senators’ way, and the wins will eventually add up. This is all to say that, in one of the oddest seasons yet, Ottawa has improved over the first two-thirds of it despite still sitting last in the division. Senators fans will hopefully look back fondly on the days when their team was the pests in an All-Canadian division as they prepare to deal with their own pests down the line.
Sports and music writer, covering the Ottawa Senators for The Hockey Writers. Lecturer at King’s University College. Loves a good day at the outdoor rink.