With just six games remaining in the regular season, the Ottawa Senators are poised to finish among the hottest teams in the NHL. Since the trade deadline, they have recorded just two losses, giving them a 0.750 win percentage and the second-best record in Canada behind the Oilers. They are also one of the few teams to have allowed on average less than two goals per game since April 12. It’s hard to believe that those stats can be attributed to one of the NHL’s worst teams, but the Senators have made a habit of shedding expectations this season, and it doesn’t appear that they’ll stop.
Compared to the beginning of the season, this is a completely different team. The coaches and management seem to have fully embraced the youth movement, and it has paid dividends already. It’s hard not to imagine what this team will be able to accomplish next season. There’s real excitement around Ottawa for the first time in too long for what the future holds.
Here are some of the biggest news stories around the team this past week.
Item One: Senators Sneak Ahead of Canucks in Standings
The NHL standings are a constantly shifting landscape; in tightly fought divisions, teams can jump up to three spots after a single win. That has not been the case for the Senators, however, as they have been firmly in last place in the Scotia North Division since the beginning of the season after suffering a brutal nine-game losing streak. In fact, most of the North Division has been relatively static, with the Toronto Maple Leafs firmly on top, the Oilers and Winnipeg Jets following behind, and the rest just a short ways behind them.
But that finally changed on April 28 when the Senators finally moved up to sixth in the North Division, overtaking the Canucks with a powerful 6-3 win that included Brady Tkachuk recording a Gordie Howe hat trick with a fight in the first period, an assist in the second, and finally, a goal in the third. It was an awesome moment not only for the young star but also for the team, as it was clear in the post-goal celebration just how close the Senators have become. Regarding their success, Josh Norris told TSN 1200, “We have a lot of swagger right now. I like that word. We have a lot of guys playing hard and well and ya…I like that term for our team…swagger.”
Although this surge has come a bit too late to make any real impact on the playoff picture, the Senators still could complicate some things for the rest of the Canadian teams. The Calgary Flames are currently just five points ahead of Ottawa and fighting for a playoff spot with the Montreal Canadiens, who have just four points on them. But the Flames have struggled against the Senators this season, losing six out of eight games to the plucky team. They face them once more in May, and it’ll likely be in a must-win situation. The Canadiens, too, have had a tough time containing Ottawa, who they’ll face twice more next month. With Calgary hot on their tails for the last spot in the playoffs, they’ll need every win they can get.
However, it’s unlikely the Senators remain in sixth or even climb to fifth before the season ends, no matter how well they play. The Canucks, despite their recent problems, still have 13 games to play, giving them a huge advantage points-wise. With Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes emerging as true game-breakers, it’s difficult to think they go down the stretch without at least a few wins. Still, that shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing from Ottawa’s perspective, as a lower finish will give them a better chance for a higher pick at the 2021 Draft, making them even more dangerous coming into 2021-22.
Item Two: Murray Injured Again
The Senators have run into goaltending troubles again, as Matt Murray went down with a lower-body injury during the April 24 game against the Canucks, and is expected to miss at least a couple of games. Complicating matters is Anton Forsberg has also been out with a minor injury, suffered prior to the April. 24 game that also forced him to miss the last two games. It’s unclear as to when Murray will be able to return. His last injury kept him out of the lineup for nearly a month, and if this new issue is a re-injury, management will be very cautious to not rush back their starting goalie.
If Murray misses the remainder of the season — a real possibility at the moment — that gives the Senators an opportunity to give their young goalies a few more chances to play in an NHL game. Filip Gustavsson had a great showing in March, recording his first-ever NHL win in his second game and posting a plus-0.900 save percentage in all but one of his four appearances, and could earn another start in May. Kevin Mandolese could also earn a call-up, as he’s been a reliable backup in the AHL so far and earned a couple of call-ups already to the taxi squad, but he never dressed for an NHL game. There’s also recent signee Mads Sogaard, who hasn’t played an AHL game yet but is primed to step into one soon.
Item Three: Anisimov Suits Up
It’s unfortunate that Murray was injured on Apr. 24 against the Canucks, as he was never supposed to start that game. Forsberg had been penciled in to open the game in net, but he went down during the pre-game skate and was unable to dress. That left the Senators just two goalies ready to play, so when Murray had to leave the game, only Marcus Hogberg remained. But the NHL rules state that any team must have two goalies dressed, and with both Gustavsson and Mandolese still hours away in Belleville, what were they going to do?
Enter Artem Anisimov. The veteran forward has had a decent season, scoring eight points in 18 games, but he has been a healthy scratch lately and hasn’t appeared in a game since Apr 8. But when the Senators needed someone to step in, he volunteered to suit up until Gustavsson arrived at the rink.
The NHL has had several instances of the emergency backup goalie, or EBUG, over the past few seasons, causing the league to implement a rule change requiring every team to have a list of possible emergency replacements that could be in the stands at any given time. Last season, David Ayers, the Toronto Marlies’ Zamboni driver, made headlines when he became the first EBUG to earn a win with the Carolina Hurricanes. But with no fans allowed in Canadian arenas yet, the Senators had to get creative, and thankfully, Anisimov stepped up, creating a fun story I’m sure he won’t easily forget.
Item Four: Mete Gets His First as a Sen
Ottawa didn’t add many players to their lineup leading up to the trade deadline, but one that intrigued fans was the claiming of Victor Mete off of waivers. The undersized defender played three and a half seasons with the Canadiens, and although he was initially viewed as a promising prospect, he soon was buried in the depth chart and was frequently a healthy scratch. But upon joining the Senators, he was given regular minutes on the third pairing, essentially replacing the departed Mike Reilly.
Mete jumped at the opportunity to re-establish his career and quickly has become one of the Senators’ more reliable defensemen. Since he joined the team on April 12, Ottawa has won six of their eight contests, and Mete has been steadily improving, earning more minutes and responsibility with each passing game. It finally paid off on the scoresheet, as he scored his first goal as a Senator — and first of 2020-21 — against the Canucks on April 28.
Mete’s success has caught the eye of nearly everyone on the team. Coach D.J. Smith sung his praises on TSN 1200 on Apr 30, saying, “Mete has come in and played very well for us, play away from the puck has been surprising.” The change of scenery seems to have greatly boosted his confidence, as has adapting to a new system better aligned with his playing style. Hopefully, he can net a few more before the season ends, as he deserves all the success he finds.
Item Five: Norris Catches Eye of Team USA
To say that Norris has been one of the most impressive Senators this season may actually be a bit of an understatement. The 21-year-old rookie is tied for second on the team with 32 points and tied for first in scoring with 17 goals. Just this past month, he put up 14 points in 14 games, the most of any Senators in April. So, it comes as no surprise that Team USA has allegedly been in contact with the young centerman about joining their World Championship team next month in Riga, Latvia.
With the Senators all but eliminated from the playoffs, several players will be eligible to join their home countries to compete in the tournament. Tkachuk, who’s leading the team in points, could also end up joining Team USA, as he’s had excellent chemistry with Norris this season. Thomas Chabot will likely get an invite to join Team Canada, as could Drake Batherson and Connor Brown, who have all have had strong seasons. Artem Zub and Evgenii Dadonov could end up on Team Russia, and Erik Brannstrom and Filip Gustavsson may get the call to join Sweden. Finally, Tim Stutzle could join the Germans, as he’s been one of the best rookies in the NHL.
What’s Next for the Senators
The Senators return to the ice on May 1, and although the expectation was Forsberg would start, recent reports indicate he may miss another game due to his son’s health. Alex Formenton may also miss the next game as he was not feeling well on Friday morning. Gustavsson was recalled from the taxi squad, but it’s mainly a precautionary move, according to Smith, and everything could change by game time.
After that, the Senators will take on the Flames, Maple Leafs, and Jets before the season ends. Then it’s on to the expansion draft, and analysts are already looking at who the team may expose. Nikita Zaitsev, Ryan Dzingel, Chris Tierney, Austin Watson, Filip Gustavsson, Joey Daccord, and even Logan Brown could end up being exposed come to the June draft date. And while all would hurt to lose, none of them will likely impact the team’s long-term future too badly.
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.