For Ottawa Senators’ fans, Halloween came a couple of days early.
It was a frightful performance down in Florida on Saturday, and one could easily be tricked into thinking the Sens had played a decent road game. After all, it seemed close on the scoreboard – a 5-3 Florida Panther victory with an empty netter at the end. But Panther fans were not only treated to a win, the club also set a franchise record with 58 shots on Ottawa’s net.
We repeat… 58 shots. A truly horrifying defensive performance.
Sens head coach D.J. Smith wasn’t thrilled, giving his team a little extra skating work at the end of practice on Sunday. It had the look of the standard old message: “If you’re not going to hard skate in the game, boys, you’re going to skate hard at practice.”
More importantly, Smith also shuffled the lines at practice, which is usually a fairly reliable preview of how he plans to deploy his troops for the next game. The biggest change is Shane Pinto moving up from the third line, replacing Derick Brassard who goes from a top six guy back to the press box.
It’s difficult to imagine an easier roster decision.
Brassard was a healthy scratch for the Sens’ first five games this season until Josh Norris went down with a shoulder injury. Norris will be gone for at least 3 months, maybe more. Instead of immediately elevating Pinto, an obviously superior player who’s producing at a high level, the Sens originally gave Norris’s minutes and linemates to Brassard, their taxi squad player. The hope was to plug and play Brassard, causing the least disruption to the other lines.
Pinto now has six goals in eight games, tied for the club lead this season. That sounds like the right guy to stand in for the team’s goal scoring leader from last season. It also stands to reason Pinto will get even more offensive chances, as he moves up to play with all-stars Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux.
“Obviously, those two guys are unbelievable players,” said Pinto. “I just gotta put my work boots on, move my feet, and do the best I can. But I’m not going to change my game, you know? I think I’m just going continue to do what I do, and hopefully we get some chemistry going.”
The only forward line Smith will keep together (for now) is the Tkachuk-Stutzle-Batherson unit. Newly re-signed Mark Kastelic moves up to the third line with Mathieu Joseph and Tyler Motte. And Dylan Gambrell reunites with Austin Watson and Parker Kelly, a lunch bucket line that Smith described as his best in several games down the stretch last season.
While the forward alignment now appears to be in good, sensible shape, Smith continues to show great faith in defenceman Nikita Zaitsev. Sens fans and analysts on social media don’t quite understand it, continuing to openly plead with the team to move on from the Russian rearguard, now in his fourth season with the club.
Zaitsev has been a healthy scratch for five of the team’s eight games this season, currently filling in for Artem Zub, who’s out with an upper body injury. Zaitsev is a bottom pairing defenceman (if that), but had the second most ice time (19:25) of any Sens defenceman in that defensive debacle Saturday in Florida.
The Senators got off to terrible starts in each of the last two seasons. After this year’s 4-2 start, winning 4 straight at home, it seemed like that was behind them. Now the hockey world is asking, “Will the real Senators please stand up?”
Certainly, two losses are nothing to panic about. But their division is far too tight and competitive to go on any sort of extended losing slide – the kind that teams who give up 58 shots in one night tend to have a hard time avoiding.
By Steve Warne