Throughout the last month of ups and downs, inconsistent play and a 30-day record of 5-5-2, there has been one truly trustworthy, stabilizing factor in the nation’s capital.
Though it took Senators head coach Guy Boucher and his staff a couple months to figure out how they wanted to arrange their forward lines, they seem to have found some combinations they’re comfortable in deploying.
The line at the top of the whiteboard constantly reads Ryan Dzingel, Kyle Turris and Bobby Ryan; a trio that has been a merging of speed, shooting and playmaking ability. At the bottom is always the joint forces of leadership and physical presence with Curtis Lazar, Chris Kelly and Chris Neil. And just above them in the three spot is a line full of speed and scoring ability featuring Tom Pyatt, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Mike Hoffman.
But the most impressive trio by far the past few weeks has been Mark Stone, Derick Brassard and Zack Smith.
Put together seemingly out of necessity - Mike Hoffman was serving a two-game suspension that left a hole in the top six - the threesome has been outstanding in all aspects.
Smith, who was off to a rather disappointing start with 4 goals and 4 assists in 30 games, has caught fire with his new linemates, putting up nine (5,4) points in the 7 games they’ve been together.
“It’s fun,” said the 28-year-old after practice on Tuesday afternoon. “Anyone wants to play in an offensive position and put up points. It’s been a great opportunity for me so far. They’re two pretty awesome players to play with. It’s nice that I’ve been able to have a bit of success offensively and stick around on that line and prove that I can play in that position.”
The easy explanation for their success could simply be Mark Stone’s sheer existence - statistically, the 24-year-old has an extremely positive influence on nearly every line he plays on - but Stone, Brassard and Smith clearly work well together as a whole.
Sometimes, with two talented players, you need a hard-working, big body to even things out. Maybe Smith can be to Stone and Brassard what Pascal Dupuis was to Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby.
To a lesser extent, yes, but the relationship comparison is visually supported.
“With those two, they’re two very skilled players,” Smith said of his current linemates. “You want the puck on their stick. With me, it’s about pushing the D back most of the time, creating a little space, getting the pucks in the corners to them. Putting it simply, it’s just to give them the puck and get to the net with my stick down. That’s what’s worked for us.”
Overall, the trio have been the most dependable line in the defensive end and the most dangerous in the offensive zone.
Among other things, it could very likely be that all three are getting into individual grooves at the right time.
During his first couple months in Ottawa, Brassard got off to a rather discouraging start. Carting only 11 (4,7) points in his first 28 games, he’s now somewhat turned things around and has recorded 7 (4,3) points in his last 11 games. The 29-year-old Hull native has also been quite the possession driver for the Senators, boasting an impactful 54.6% CF rating.
Stone, though he never seems to miss a beat, is on a long hot streak. The 6’3 right winger is on a point-per-game pace in his last 26 matches - 11 goals and 15 assists in that span.
Left out in all the fun is Hoffman, though. Ever since his suspension for a crosscheck on Logan Couture, the speedy winger has played most of his even strength minutes on the third line.
He is still the go-to guy on the man advantage, and he’s still clocking in, on average, slightly under 18 minutes a game, but you’ve got to wonder if it is a good thing for the team’s best goal scorer to be starting every night further down in the lineup.
Maybe something’s got to give on the top pairing with Ryan placed alongside Dzingel and Turris, or maybe evening things out, spreading out your scoring is a better plan under Boucher’s system.
Whatever the best recipe for wins may be, Ottawa sure could use it right now. With their numerous games in hand on the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, the Senators have a huge opportunity to give themselves some breathing room going into the All-Star Break, while they currently sit on the edge of a playoff seat.
Though there’s stiff competition up ahead - the Penguins, Blue Jackets, Blues and the red hot Leafs are next in line - the Senators have put themselves in a solid position to succeed at 21-14-4 midway through the season.