Senators’ season nearing a tipping point after falling short against Golden Knights

OTTAWA – Fans and media love to identify turning points and key schedule stretches for the team they follow.

Sometimes we don’t know what that critical juncture is until long after the fact (e.g., remember that game in November 2021 when they gutted out a win despite having six guys with the flu)?

For the Ottawa Senators, with 10 games in the books and a schedule ahead that looks a little more friendly, it feels like they better step up now before another season gets away from them. Are the Sens reaching the point of no return?

On Thursday, the Vegas Golden Knights put on another demonstration of why they are one of the NHL’s premier clubs, escaping with a 5-4 win, after staking out a 5-1 lead through the first 30 minutes. Sitting on that cushion, the Knights may have thought the game was over, but the home team mounted a furious comeback to provide an entertaining show for the 16,043 fans at the Canadian Tire Centre.

Senators head coach D.J. Smith would use the term “moral victory,” while at the same time admitting there may be no such thing in professional sports.

The loss was not only the Senators seventh straight in their recent series of games against Vegas, it was also their fourth straight loss in the past week. That four-game win streak on home ice, from Oct. 18-24 is now a distant memory, but the Sens play five of their next seven games at the CTC, needing to put something together to stay in contact with rivals in the Atlantic Division.

Regrets? The Sens have had a few. Nearly as many as the giveaways and broken defensive-zone coverage that continue to plague them. Vegas scored its first two goals off the rush and their third when Jake Sanderson made a rare turnover in his own end.

The fourth? That came shorthanded, when Tim Stützle slipped and fell while trying to set up the power play in the Knights end, leading to a rush up ice and poor pursuit by a couple of Ottawa players.

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A veteran and a youngster led Ottawa’s offence, as Claude Giroux and Stützle scored a pair of goals each. The first Giroux goal came when he fired a long dump-in from just past centre ice – a shot that took a giant bounce and drifted over the right shoulder of goaltender Logan Thompson. Hey you kids out there, in the 1960s J.C. Tremblay of the Montreal Canadiens used to give goalies fits with that type of shot.

“I’ve probably tried that over 500 times in my career and it never went in,” Giroux said, afterward. “Overdue, I’d say, but I get pretty excited when I see a goal like that. We’ll definitely take it.”

On the morning of the game, Stützle was at his self-deprecating best, suggesting he played “really, really bad” during the two-game trip to Florida and wanted to make amends. Did he ever.

The 20-year-old from Germany had his best game of the season, pushing the play and putting five shots on Thompson. (Stützle came into the game with just 12 shots on the season. Ottawa outshot the visitors, 46-32). Stützle scored a beauty on a give-and-go with Brady Tkachuk and tapped one in when a shot by Tkachuk got through Thompson and the puck was sitting on the goal line.

Veteran goalie Cam Talbot made his season debut, in relief, coming in to replace Anton Forsberg after Vegas’ fifth goal. Talbot stopped all 13 shots he faced and made a couple of stellar saves during a lengthy 5-on-3 advantage for the Knights in the third period.

It is easier to say than to do, but the Sens would like to bottle up the effort and style of play they showed in the second half of their 10th game of the season.

“That’s the identity we want to play with, that second and third (period) there,” said captain Tkachuk. “It’s just unfortunate we got down too much where we couldn’t come back from, but that second and third period is some of the best hockey we’ve played all year.”

Head coach D.J. Smith likes his chances if the Senators can play like they did in the final 30 minutes against Vegas.

“You get that effort from the guys that we got tonight and you’ll start to win a lot of games … I thought we were dynamic at times,” Smith said.

Smith loved both the play of Talbot and the way his teammates played in front of him.

The prevailing question – how much stock to put into a furious rally after a team has already coughed up five goals and the opponent is sitting on a big lead?

If nothing else, this team has not quit on its coach.

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Batting .400 through 10 games

On the morning of the Vegas game, Smith was asked what he foresaw as his team’s record at the 10-game mark. Smith responded: “At least 5-and-5.”

Ottawa was 4-5 at that point, and is now 4-6, alone at the bottom of the Atlantic. The Sens are 4-2 at home and 0-4 on the road. Three of the next four games are against beatable teams – two against Philadelphia (Nov. 5, 12) and one against Vancouver, in Ottawa next Tuesday.

Seems like kind of a low bar, aiming for .500 off the opening 10 games, but the Sens were coming off a three-game slide when the question was asked. Smith said the goal was modest because of the strength of opponents through the first weeks of the season.

“Eight of the first 10 were playing against teams that were playoff teams a year ago,” Smith said. “After tonight, we’ll know where we stand with that.”

Where they stand is two games under .500 going into the second month of the season. This next stretch of games, which includes several non-playoff teams from last season, are suddenly critical if the Senators are to reach their stated goal of playing “meaningful games” all season long. That is, staying in contention.

Smith said his team knows how it needs to play, with lunch pails and urgency, tracking pucks, pushing possession etc. He doesn’t mention defensive-zone coverage, which has been deplorable, but simply said they need to be in the other team’s zone more.

Artem Zub has been sorely missed on the blueline. Thomas Chabot has noticeably struggled in his absence.

With GM Pierre Dorion scouting (he was in Winnipeg for the Habs vs. Jets Thursday), the hope is he returns with defensive help.

I loved Smith’s line when asked how the team fills in for Zub, expected to be out for at least the next two games with an upper body injury.

“Someone has to be better,” Smith said.

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Talbot starts Saturday

Talbot, recovered from his rib injury, is expected to start in goal Saturday against the visiting Philadelphia Flyers. Smith feels the former Minnesota Wild goaltender will give his team a boost, even though Forsberg played well for most of his nine starts.

“When (Talbot) is on, he’s as good as anyone in the league,” Smith said. “He’s going to steal you the odd game. And that’s part of it. There’s goalies out there that steal games for teams. Forsy has been really good. He’s the kind of guy that can steal you games as well.

“He’s mature, he’s going to have the room ready. And he’ll say the right things to the guys. He’s demanded that respect, that I think you’ll see the guys play real hard in front of him.”

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Ryan Reynolds, for real

Outside of Ottawa, people might consider the People magazine story on Ryan Reynolds as a potential buyer of the Senators to be a bit of a lark. A story for a few clicks, for a day. Then forgotten.

They may not know the deep connection the Canadian actor has with this city. Reynolds, who lives in Vancouver, spent part of his childhood growing up in Vanier, an Ottawa neighbourhood. He keeps up on developments here and during the pandemic, when they heard the Ottawa Food Bank was in need, Reynolds and his wife, Blake Lively, made a significant donation to the food bank.

This past summer, mayor Jim Watson named a street after Reynolds: ‘Ryan Reynolds Way’ is going to be part of a new subdivision in the east end of Ottawa.

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All of this to say that Reynolds, who already owns a soccer club in Wales (Wrexham FC), knows his way around pro sports, loves hockey like any good Canadian, and is said to be seriously interested in owning the Senators.

What are the odds? Who knows. There is a long way to go in this process and there will be many interested parties in buying this NHL team in Canada’s capital, with a new arena approved in principle just west of Parliament Hill.

But don’t laugh at the idea of Reynolds buying the Ottawa Senators.

Crazier things have happened.

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