Almost exactly two months ago, the Ottawa Senators’ forward corps - showing no signs of slowing down and often bailing out a lacklustre blue line and struggling goaltending duo - was gifted a significant upgrade.
An offense that, for some time, had been on the cusp of deserving an elite title, had seemingly got the piece to push them over the edge. The Senators now had the fire power that could truly allow them to go toe-to-toe with the best in the league.
This, of course, was a result of the blockbuster trade general manager Pierre Dorion pulled off the weekend before the team jetted overseas to Sweden for a back-to-back with the Colorado Avalanche.
Out went Kyle Turris and several deal-sweeteners, and in came Matt Duchene. On paper, it was quite possible that the Senators had just become a bonafide Cup contender. A couple of wins against the lowly Avs in Stockholm kept the idea relevant, but a seven-game losing streak immediately after returning to North America quickly accomplished the opposite.
Duchene had showed signs of brilliance on his own, but barely meshed with teammates during the first few weeks. In their own end, the netminders were still unreliable and the bloopers were aplenty from the defense, but with little to no goals coming from the forwards, it was hard to not put a large quantity of blame on the offense that was supposed to have just been improved.
It might be a lot too late - the Senators currently sit 16 points out of third in the Atlantic and 10 points out of the final wild card spot - but the ship is beginning to change course and head in the right direction.
There was convincing play before and after a 5-0 loss to the Bruins on Dec. 30 - a 5-4 win over the then Metropolitan leading Columbus Blue Jackets the previous night, and 34 shots and, what felt like, eight posts against the Detroit Red Wings the following game - but everything looked to really fall into place last weekend.
For one, head coach Guy Boucher had stuck to a selection of line combinations since the 2-1 loss in Detroit - the top six featured Duchene with Bobby Ryan and Mike Hoffman, and Derick Brassard with Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel - allowing some much needed consistency from the man who far too frequently brings out the blender and sets it to liquefy. The chemistry was instantly obvious, but especially from the top two lines.
In back-to-back wins on Friday and Saturday, the top six combined for 23 (10,13) points and catapulted the Senators past the NHL’s best offense in the Tampa Bay Lightning and a top-five defense in the San Jose Sharks.
Stone has been an absolute force all year, so that was a given going into the weekend, but it was the elevation from other expected offensive contributors that transformed Ottawa into a goal-scoring machine.
Duchene’s skillset has been on display since the trade, but he finally looks confident within Boucher’s structure. Hoffman is clearly energized playing alongside two genuine top-six forwards, and Ryan is the healthiest he’s been since the initial break in his finger earlier this season. Also, the last three games, Brassard - who is questionable for tonight against the Chicago Balckhawks - seems to be turning back into the player that began the campaign with 10 (6,4) points in eight games.
And then there’s Dzingel, whose development last season allowed the Senators to boast one of the best forward depths in the league, and whose continual persistence eight months later has them on the verge of, once again, making critics answer the question: Does the Senators’ top-six have the ability to turn elite?
At times last season the 25-year-old seemed to struggle with finishing chances. It was easy for fans and analysts to claim that it was simply part of the player he was (a few unnecessary Erik Condra jokes were made in the process - you know who you are), but the redeeming aspect behind the misses, whiffs and fumbles was always there. The chances he was supposedly booting away were usually created, singlehandedly, by himself. And they were bound to go in at some point.
The 2016-17 regular season saw Dzingel register 14 tallies. This year, he’s second on the team in goals with 13, just one game from the halfway point.
“When it’s (your) first year in the league, sometimes it’s tough to score,” linemate Stone explained after practice Monday. “When you get into your second and third years, you start to figure out easier ways to score goals and I think he’s done that. I think the last four he’s scored are all in and around the net, just getting himself open and finding loose pucks and putting them in the back of the net. Being hard at the net is about the easiest way to score goals in this league. Unless you have an Ovechkin-type shot, but not many guys in this league have that.”
One characteristic of Dzingel’s game that didn’t need to be upgraded in the offseason was his skating. And that’s something Stone is more than happy to be able to utilize.
“When you have that kind of speed, I think the other team has to respect you no matter who you are,” said Stone.
“You look at some of the rushes we’re getting and (it’s) because he’s backing the Dmen up. When you get a guy with that type of speed, he’s obviously going to use it to his advantage, but other guys around him have to use it to their advantage, too.”
There’s something that Dzingel values more than his newfound golden touch with the puck, though. This season his overall average ice time has increased by 1:33 and his average time on the man advantage jumped up by 0:59.
The coach unquestionably approves of the player he’s moulded into.
“This year, what we see is the progression,” Boucher said. “He’s just continued it, there’s no really big dip for him, even when the team wasn’t doing as good, he was still progressing. So what you see lately is actually what you saw-- it’s like Stone, for me. People will say ‘oh, he’s had two great games,’ no, he was great the whole year and he’s been on since Day 1.
“People are looking at the offensive results, but I’m looking at the big picture of everything: being in the right places defensively, being able to sustain 60 minutes with the better players, his mind staying in the right place. All the things that are not apparent for, obviously, the people that are not coaching. Every single one of those areas has improved, which means that you can continue to think that this guy’s ceiling is even higher.”
For the uptick in ice time and faith from the bench boss, Dzingel credits his offseason work regiment and the focus he aimed at particular parts of his game, mostly without the puck in both ends.
“At the end of the day, the league’s going to go up and down with the scoring - it’s going to be streaky,” said Dzingel of his offensive contrast from last year to now. “You want to be able to do other things, as well, and earn trust from (the) coach.”