Ottawa will have played just 1 game in the past 25 days when they take to the ice on Thursday night against the Calgary Flames (fingers crossed that game doesn’t get postponed). That lone game was a 6-0 loss to the Maple Leafs on January 1st, an outing most Sens fans would like to forget.
Like most teams, the Sens have dealt with players shifting on and off the NHL’s Covid protocol list over the past few weeks. It will take a game or two to shake the rust off at first but, we will need some answers to the following questions down the stretch:
Who’s the starting goaltender?
We’ve been asking this question for basically a year now. Matt Murray, Anton Forsberg and Filip Gustavsson have shared the net through the first 29 games this season, with Forsberg playing the most games (13). Murray was sent to Belleville back in November after starting the season 0-5 but has since been brought back up after Forsberg and Gustavsson were placed in Covid protocol. Murray started in goal against the Leafs for their 6-0 loss on January 1st, but it wouldn’t be fair to blame him when the whole team played poorly.
With all 3 goalies healthy and activated from Covid protocol, Filip Gustavsson was sent to Belleville earlier today. Gustavsson hasn’t won a game since November 13th and has lost his last 4 starts, giving up 20 goals during that span. With his 2-way contract status and below-average play as of late, it makes sense to send him to Belleville, so he can get reps at practice and start down there until he gets back on track.
Anton Forsberg stole both a win and the net after a 47 save performance against the Carolina Hurricanes back on December 2nd. He’s started 7 of the last 9 Sens games collecting 5 wins during that time. Forsberg last played on December 18th in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Flyers, and I’d assume he would get the start on Thursday against the Flames based on his play in December. Can Forsberg continue to impress? Will Matt Murray ever live up to his big-ticket contract? Is the future starting goaltender even in the Sens organization? With 53 games remaining on the schedule, we’ll soon find out who this team’s starting goaltender is.
Has Erik Brannstrom learned anything?
Brannstrom failed to make the Ottawa Senators opening night roster after a solid finish to the season back in 2020. After Pierre Dorion re-signed Victor Mete, he brought in Nick Holden and Michael Del Zotto, leaving no room for Brannstrom. Being on a 2-way contract, it made sense to send him to Belleville to get more ice time and continue developing. In early November, he was called up but broke his hand in a game against the Kings on November 11th. Brannstrom returned to the team following the Christmas break, playing in the January 1stloss to the Leafs, but has only appeared in 3 games this season.
It’s fair to say Brannstrom hasn’t met the team’s expectations since the Senators acquired him in the Mark Stone trade. There have been positive flashes, but nothing more than that and patience is starting to run thin, especially with the fan base. After spending some time with Troy Mann and the coaching staff in Belleville, Brannstrom’s currently with the Sens getting reps as a 3rd pairing defenceman. Is Erik Brannstrom here to stay? Does he have a future with the Sens organization? Time’s running out to see if the former 1st round pick can crack the Sens roster for good.
Will the top line get some scoring help?
The line of Tkachuk-Norris-Batherson has started to establish itself as one of the best in the NHL. They’ve combined for 35 goals and 72 points through the first 29 games of the season. Drake Batherson’s the top point producer with 28 in 24 games, while Josh Norris is the leading goal scorer with 14, 2 ahead of captain Brady Tkachuk. Outside of these 3, the Sens forward group has combined 36 goals and 83 points.
Connor Brown’s 4th in forward scoring with 17 points in 25 games, and Tim Stützle rounds out the top 5 with 15 points, playing in all 29 games to start the season. After leading the Sens with 21 goals in 56 games last season, Brown has just 4 to start. Stützle was snake-bitten at the beginning of the year but has 4 goals in his previous 8 games. He’s been shifted all over the lineup due to injuries/Covid, seeing time at both the wing and centre.
It looks like we’ll see Formenton-Stützle-Brown as the Sens 2nd line come Thursday night’s game against the Flames. Formenton has 4 goals and 7 points in the last 9 games, looking good next to Stützle after replacing Nick Paul as the team’s 2nd line left-winger. How long will this line remain together? Can Connor Brown get back to 20 goals? Will Stützle cement himself as the 2nd line centre?
As of today, the Sens final game is April 29th against the Flyers. If the NHL doesn’t push games into May, Ottawa will have 107 days to play out their remaining 53 games. There’s a lot of hockey left, and with the first 29 games being mainly frustrating, DJ Smith and his coaching staff have their hands full trying to figure out how to end the season on a positive note.
By Steve Bunda