Ottawa Senators fans are being treated to something their team lacked for the better part of last season; a high-powered, exhilarating offense. Good enough for fifth in the league with 3.63 goals per game.
So what’s different?
Are they spending more time on the power play in practice? Did the coaching staff alter their approach after over 100 games of critics labelling them boring? Are the talented players simply receiving an increase in freedom with the puck?
Nope. Actually, it’s nothing. Well, almost nothing.
“It’s not like ‘oh my god, they focus on offense now,’” head coach Guy Boucher strongly stated after practice on Monday. “Absolutely not. Whoever would say that is really out to lunch in their evaluation.
“Have we changed anything? No. It’s just the fact that our players are not spending the first month and a half, two months to figure out what our systems are.”
That added comfort and confidence in a strategy and culture that took around 30 games to only somewhat adapt to is certainly showing. Not even three weeks into the 2017-18 campaign and the Senators have scored six goals three times, two back of last year’s total.
The team looks sharper on the man advantage - since starting the season 0-for-19, they’re 7-for-20 and up to 17th in the league with a 17.9% success rate. The stars are playing like they’re stars - Derick Brassard, Mark Stone, Kyle Turris and Erik Karlsson all boast a point-per-game pace. And the defensemen are getting in on the act - they’ve combined for 21 points so far.
But there’s something the Senators have been doing as good or better than any team.
“We’re pretty good right now at transitioning pucks,” forward Mark Stone explained. “You look at the goals we’re scoring; we’re causing turnovers in the O zone, we’re causing turnovers in the neutral zone and we’re taking pucks back the other way.”
Of course, it would be Stone to bring that point up, seeing as his most recent goal (excluding the empty net tally) was off a steal at the opposing blue line on Saturday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he is right.
The Senators sit 12th in the NHL in takeaways with 7.1 per game, but they’ve also excelled in the interceptions department (which the league does not track for the defending team), turning many steals into scoring chances.
Ottawa’s hot start in the offensive zone doesn’t look to be just a flash in the pan. They were scoring when Karlsson was practicing in a non-contact
red yellow green blue jersey, and they’ve put up 10 goals in the three games since his return - six of those coming against the overwhelming Stanley Cup favourite.
Their recent consistency makes the absence of Zack Smith and Bobby Ryan less concerning, and because they have proven to rarely stray from the blueprint when in the face of adversity, this Senators team may be the most reliable and complete the nation’s capital has seen in many years.
As it would for any organization, the offense is more than welcomed by Boucher and company. Being a top-five team in the other end is nothing to shrug at - the Senators haven’t accomplished such a feat since the 2011-12 season.
But being a top-five defensive team (which they are, with a league-wide third best goals against per game of 2.38) will always be much more attractive in the eyes of the man with the plan.
“We know the No. 1 indicator for playoffs is to be top-10 in goals against,” said Boucher. “If we’re top-five goals for, that’s fine, but if we’re not top-10 goals against then it means nothing. We’ve got a lot of teams last year that had a lot of offense and are still wondering why they didn’t make the playoffs.
“Our focus is to be the best two-way team in the league. So, if our offense catches up to our defensive game, great. But if our defensive game diminishes, then we’re going nowhere. We know that.”