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Digging Out from the Avalanche: Josh Norris Finally Set to Return This Week

A 7-0 result may have aligned nicely with the start of the NFL playoffs, but it wasn’t exactly how the Senators wanted to kick off the second half of their NHL season. But that’s how it was Saturday night in Denver, getting trampled by the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.

The Sens have lost three of their last four games, a span where they’ve been shutout twice and outscored by a total of 23-7.

In Denver, the team was plagued by more of the same things. Confusion in defensive coverage; sloppy, long passes through the middle of the ice, defencemen lurching out of position, leaving the middle of the ice undefended. And they aren’t taking care of the puck. Sometimes there’s no play to be made – no time to hang on and try to do something clever. Sometimes you only have enough time to chip the puck out of your zone or dump it in deep so you can live to fight another day. Far too often, the Sens aren’t recognizing those moments, leading to turnovers.

So getting beyond their .500 record has been like climbing a pole that’s greased on the upper half. On December 17th, the club got to .500 with a win over Detroit. But they’ve hovered in place ever since, now one game below .500. It’s truly hard to imagine many NHL clubs being as patient with their coaching staff as the Senators have been with D.J. Smith, no matter what the circumstances are.

As if a 7-0 loss weren’t enough, the Sens lost defenceman Artem Zub to his third injury of the season. The club will review his status when they return to Ottawa this week. Jacob Bernard-Docker has been recalled to take his spot.

But the injury news isn’t all bad. Winger Mathieu Joseph will return Monday night in St. Louis. He’s been out of the lineup with a lower body injury suffered earlier this season against Dallas. He was supposed to miss only two weeks but ended up missing five and a half.

More importantly, Josh Norris is expected to return later this week. At the time of his injury, Norris was the club’s top centre but Tim Stutzle has since entered that debate. Regardless, the return of Norris and Joseph restore comfort throughout the lineup. It not only gives the Sens two dangerous centres instead of one, it also takes defensive attention and pressure off Stutzle. As good as he is, the young German is still learning and developing and doesn’t need to always be facing every team’s very best defenders every single night. Additionally, it restores some much-needed scoring punch to the third line. Shane Pinto can return to a more comfortable role, facing lesser opponents. Pinto and Joseph resurfacing together on the third line probably forces Jake Lucchini back to Belleville, while Dylan Gambrell and Derick Brassard revert to a timeshare situation.

Given that Norris was injured while taking a face-off back in October, Smith will probably pair him with winger Claude Giroux who can handle the draws. It’s not a bad plan to do that anyway since Giroux has been among the top five face-off men in the league all season long, as usual.

“Yeah, I’ll probably put him with a guy like Giroux,” Smith said. “Giroux can take face-offs for him so he doesn’t have to put a ton of pressure on himself to get in there and really reef on it. We’ll see how it goes, but Norris’s conditioning has been superb – and always has been – so that won’t be an issue.”

Smith was non-committal as to exactly when Norris will suit up this week. It just won’t be Monday night.

“It’s a touch and go timeline,” Smith said. “We’re going to make sure he’s 100%. We’ll talk to our doctors when we get back and we’ll see what happens.”

With the playoffs now an extreme long shot, a conservative approach on Norris is a no-brainer. This is his third shoulder injury and second in the NHL in as many seasons. It might even be wise to tack on more healing and strengthening time, just to be cautious.

The Sens schedule this week: 

Ottawa at St. Louis: Monday night at 8pm. Sportsnet, RDS

Pittsburgh at Ottawa: Wednesday night at 7pm. Sportsnet, TVAS

Ottawa at Pittsburgh: Friday night at 7pm. TSN5, RDS, NHLN

Winnipeg at Ottawa: Saturday night at 7pm. SN1, City, SNW, TVAS2

By Steve Warne

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