The new-look Ottawa Senators promised to play a brand of hockey that would make the home fan base proud.
And while that fan base was scattered around the region Friday night, watching the home opener on TV because of a fan ban during the COVID-19 pandemic, they were surely proud of their upstart Sens putting a 5-3 spanking on the provincial rivals from Toronto.
The Leafs will be looking for revenge in Saturday’s rematch on Hockey Night In Canada.
For Ottawa, it’s one down and 55 more hockey games in Canada to go.
“We enjoy tonight, but tomorrow we have a tough matchup again,” said veteran centre Derek Stepan, who scored in his Senators debut. “The way the schedule is set up you’ve got to have a short term memory. It was a good win but tomorrow we’ve got to put our work boots on because that team is going to come out, they’re going to play hard.”
Riding a second period wave that featured three goals in less than five minutes, the Senators erased a 2-1 Maple Leafs lead and brought home the win with a blue-collar effort in the final 20 minutes.
During that decisive second period, which began with the Leafs holding the play and the puck in Ottawa’s end, momentum seemed to change in a heartbeat. A Brady Tkachuk tip off a Nikita Zaitsev shot, an Austin Watson wrister and a Chris Tierney chip shot during a delayed penalty call produced a trio of goals that had the favoured Leafs reeling.
The Sens held Toronto to 23 shots. Ottawa’s new starting goaltender, Matt Murray, provided a sense of calm throughout.
“I thought the team did a heck of a job keeping them to the outside.” Murray said. “That’s a heck of a team over there, tons of skill. I really liked our effort. We had five guys all over the ice.”
Senators head coach D.J. Smith was pleased with the way his team held its composure, led by Murray, after the Leafs got an early lead.
“We did a pretty good letting the goalie see the puck, we got some timely goals and we found a way to finish it off,” Smith said.
“You can see why (Murray) is an elite goalie in the league,” Smith said. “He doesn’t panic. He just reads the play. He gets scored on, he just goes back to work. And I think that gives our young team a lot of confidence when you’ve got a goalie in there that’s capable of closing games out.”
Wearing their home black jerseys with the retro centurion logo, the Senators looked a little rusty to start — not surprising after 310 days between games. They had to feel OK about heading to the first intermission tied 1-1.
Owners of the NHL’s worst power play last season, the Senators’ revamped unit went to work late in the first period, taking advantage of a 5-on-3 opportunity that resulted from a too-many men-call on the Leafs.
From the high slot, Thomas Chabot ripped a one-timer past Frederik Andersen. Drake Batherson, who continues to be a puck distributor on the power play, fed Chabot so neatly from the corner that Andersen could not get over fast enough to greet the Chabot blast at 19:16 in the first period.
The Leafs had scored a power play of their own midway through the first, with Zach Hyman tapping an errant puck past Murray. Replay officials took a long look before declaring it a keeper. Hyman’s stick was so close to crossbar height, it was one of those plays that could have gone either way and tends to go with the call on the ice — which was a goal.
Ottawa’s defence featured a few misadventures, especially with Christian Wolanin and Zaitsev on the ice, but Murray — playing in his 200th NHL game — was there to bail them out. Wolanin, who had been placed on waivers as recently as Monday before scoring a hat trick in a scrimmage that same evening, was charged with two giveaways in the first period alone. He looked more comfortable taking the puck up ice on the power play, more to his strength than his defensive zone play.
By the second period, Ottawa’s bench had seen enough and Zaitsev was paired with Chabot and Wolanin with Erik Gudbranson.
Even without the noisy fans of both Ontario camps, the Senators vowed to be rowdy. Feisty. Led by their chief ramrod, Tkachuk.
“We still have skill, but our look is being physical, we aren’t going to take anything from anybody,” Tkachuk said. “I think we’ve got one of the toughest teams in the whole league.
“Our goal is to make life tough on the opponent, try to impose our will.”
Tkachuk’s new centre, rookie Josh Norris, had a sweet night after earning a spot during camp. Norris was solid at both ends and picked up a pair of secondary assists.
The Norris-Tkachuk-Batherson line produced seven points, a slick debut for a trio that averages just over 21 years of age.
Stepan finished off a physical foray by Tkachuk and Batherson down low to score Ottawa’s fifth goal, putting the game out of reach. Leafs captain John Tavares rifled a bar-down shot to make the score more respectable.
Though he didn’t figure in the scoring, Senators rookie Tim Stützle did not look out of place in his NHL debut. The birthday boy made smart decisions with the puck, had a couple of “wow” moments with dazzling moves and consistently found the open man. He played just under 12 minutes. It showed that Stützle has played in the German men’s league as he was not physically intimidated.
“You can clearly tell he’s going to be a stud,” Tkachuk said of Stützle.
In a normal year, a Battle of Ontario meeting to launch a season would have had all the requisite trimmings, backed by a healthy dose of hate.
Torrents of spectators wearing the blue-and-white of the Maple Leafs and red-and-white (with a mixture of black jerseys) of the Senators would have streamed into the building in a raucous parade of expectation.
Three hours before game time, the keenest of fans would have lined up along the red carpet on the arena plaza to greet players, staff and management as they entered the building, high-fiving the faithful in the sort of carefree, pre-virus ritual that feels like another world now.
On Friday, players entered through a back entrance at their leisure and closer to game time, media drove past the empty lots and parked crazily close to a Gate 2 entrance to get their temperatures taken and check off a COVID-19 health form.
Inside, the Canadian Tire Centre was eerily empty, but dressed up as smart as possible with bold red vinyl sheeting on the seats behind the player benches. When Matt Murray led his new Senators team out for the warmups, like Pavlov’s dogs, we anticipated a roaring crowd that simply wasn’t to be heard.
Defensive leader Chabot knew things would be “different” in this coronavirus season, but also that players were ready for it.
“At the end of the day, we just feel fortunate to be able to play,” Chabot said.
“For us as hockey players, we’re happy to be back on TV, to give people something to watch and to cheer for. Obviously we know our fans will be watching us every night. It’s important to go out, play our ass off and work as hard as we can.”
White, Galchenyuk and Reilly scratched
Head coach D.J. Smith promised to reward the fittest, hardest-working players in camp with starting jobs. Three veterans who didn’t make the grade were centre Colin White, forward Alex Galchenyuk and defenceman Mike Reilly.
White is the most surprising of the three, considering he is part of the youth movement at 23, and signed a six-year deal in 2019 with an AAV of $4.75M.
Smith said the other four centres — Norris, Stepan, Tierney and Artem Anisimov — had better camps, but with 56 games in 113 days, “there will be guys in and out” of the lineup.
“It’s a big story today but Colin is going to be a big part of this and help us win hockey games going forward,” Smith said.
Smith had been complimentary of White’s play early, but he also cautioned the media that some players would fall back when the tempo was increased late in camp. White put on weight and muscle in the off-season in an attempt to come back stronger. In the end, both White and centre prospect Logan Brown drifted out of the picture — Brown demoted to AHL’s Belleville Senators. White could be back in the lineup as early as Saturday night.
Galchenyuk, 26, was picked up in the off-season on a one-year, $1.05M deal. He has fallen off from his early, productive years with the Montreal Canadiens, the team that selected him third overall in 2012.
Reilly, 27, came over from Montreal via trade last season as a depth defenceman and doesn’t figure in Ottawa’s long-term plans.
Happy birthday, ‘Jimmy’ Stützle?
Tkachuk noted that he and housemate Norris got up in the morning and sang a birthday tune to Tim Stützle, their newest tenant.
“Right when we woke up we sang a little Happy Birthday for Jimmy,” Tkachuk said.
Clearly, ‘Jimmy’ is a new room nickname for Stützle, who turned 19 on opening day.
“My birthday is going to be pushed back,” Stützle said. My focus is on the game.”
Stützle became the fourth teenager in NHL history to make his NHL debut on his birthday. But he’s the only one to do it in a Battle of Ontario game.
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