If I had told you back in September that the Ottawa Senators would be heading into a critical match-up with a divisional rival in the last week of the regular season, nothing would have seemed amiss. After all, even the most optimistic fans recognized that the Sens were probably at best a play-off bubble team; it would have been totally normal for the hometown heroes to be battling to lock up a play-off spot in the closing games of the regular season. In that alternative reality, tonight’s hard fought 4-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres would have been mightily cherished. Instead, in the real world, Ottawa’s two points guaranteed they could finish no lower than 30th — Buffalo has now secured for themselves last place overall, and with it the best chance at winning the draft lottery. The NHL.com recap of tonight’s affair didn’t mince any words: the true tension in this game was all about jockeying for draft lottery odds.
The game got off to an inauspicious (or perhaps auspicious?) beginning for the Sens when Ryan O’Reilly scored barely thirty seconds into the first frame:
This goal was a combination of a couple of successive nice plays by the Sabres, and a couple of small errors by the Senators. The problems started when Fredrik Claesson pinched down on the Sabres winger in the offensive end (probably the correct play in this situation) but Colin White didn’t quite quickly enough to Scott Wilson’s chip off the boards and couldn’t close on Sam Reinhart before Reinhart made an adept touch pass that sprung O’Reilly. Meanwhile, Mike Hoffman fully turned on the jets on the backcheck but he also recognized the play developing a half second too late and could never quite completely make up the gap on O’Reilly. Lastly, Cody Ceci made a dubious choice to chase Reinhart and open up the lane to the net at all. Maybe Ceci thought Hoffman had O’Reilly covered but with White closing fast and the Sens having three skaters back against the Sabres’ two forwards, I’m unconvinced that forcing the issue in the neutral zone was the right call on his part. There’s nothing egregious there from any of the three, just a series of small mistakes that the Sabres capitalized on with some skilled play of their own. “A series of small mistakes that the opposing team capitalized on” is a variation of so many of this year’s recaps.
Now, if this were any other game this season the ominous opening might well have carried over to the rest of the contest. How many times have we seen this team just get steamrolled, after all? Instead, no, in a game that you could confidently say that they would have been better off losing, the Ottawa Senators stiffened their resolve and played mostly....well.
In fact, the Sens not only tied the game but took the lead before the period was out. First, Max McCormick equalized less than two and a half minutes later via a deflection:
Then, Matt Duchene rifled home a shot to the top corner off a turnover in the Sabres’ end:
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long after Duchene’s tally that Bobby Ryan was forced to leave the game with an apparent lower body injury. For someone as injury prone as Ryan has been of late, it can’t feel good to miss even these meaningless games. With just the two matches left, and based on the way he seemed to be struggling on the bench, this was likely the last we’ll see of Ryan for the year.
The second period favoured the Senators much more decisively, and Ottawa controlled play for long stretches . With Ryan injured and the Sens lines in even more of a blender than usual, virtually every forward was called upon to contribute in some capacity. Boucher distributed ice time fairly equally amount the remaining 11 forwards; no one saw more than Zack Smith’s 18:26 or less than Max McCormick’s 12:35. Part of this was because so much of the game was played at 5v5: the Sabres had 3 power play opportunities, while the Senators had but one. But it was just after that lone opportunity had expired that Ryan Dzingel netted his 21st of the season, a goal that eventually proved to be the game winner:
Filip Chlapik and Christian Wolanin drew assists on the goal, which was fitting because to my eyes the three were Ottawa’s best players on the night.
Kyle Okposo brought the Sabres back to within one before the end of the frame, setting up what would ordinarily have been a tense finish. Alas, these last few weeks when losing matters more than winning has made for strange games and the final stanza did not bring much by the way of excitement. It’s not that the Sabres were completely disinterested, it just didn’t strike me that they were completely motivated to tie it up either. A play-off atmosphere, this was not. Ultimately, the Sens weathered the storm and Alexandre Burrows slotted home an empty-netter to finish the scoring.
Christian Wolanin has been a revelation to me since his debut last week and his strong play continued tonight. Wolanin demonstrated the type of poise and skill with the puck that’s sorely lacking on the Sens’ blue line. It’s early days yet, but so far, so good.
Ryan Dzingel has had better games this year, but he did pick up two points and almost had a second goal but for a scintillating glove save by Chad Johnson. That he was one of the Sens’ best players without being at his absolute best says a lot about how far he’s come in the last couple of seasons
Filip Chlapik created several chances for his line-mates thanks to his creativity and his willingness to make aggressive plays with the puck. He picked up the one assist and generally looked threatening throughout.