Sometimes there are shutout that goaltenders don’t earn. The opposing team looks off, they don’t apply pressure until it’s too late, and the goalie skates away with an easy one. This was not one of those games. Anders Nilsson was dynamite (and a tiny bit lucky) between the pipes tonight, earning the Senators a 2-0 shutout victory over the St. Louis Blues. Unsurprisingly, he was voted the game’s first star. Especially as the Blues turned up the heat in the third, Nilsson stayed cool and earned a nice victory in the NHL debut of both Erik Brannstrom and Max Veronneau.
The first period was kind of interesting to start with. The Sens got a powerplay just 40 seconds into the game, and also got the game’s second powerplay around the eight-minute mark. But other than those two powerplays (which mustered next-to-nothing), the balance of play went to St. Louis. They hemmed the Sens in their own zone for much of the period, outshooting the Sens 13-5. The Blues actually got two powerplays of their own, but the Sens killed those relatively well. Most of the Blues’ dangerous chances came 5-on-5, where the Sens looked like they thought they were still on the powerplay.
Now you should take all my strategy thoughts with a grain of salt, but to me Ottawa looks like a team that has a plan with the puck until they hit centre. Don’t get me wrong, I love a controlled breakout, but I’d also like some controlled entries. In their own zone, the Sens look for the open man for a quick, short pass, and do this a few times to safely get to centre. However, somewhere around the opposing blue line, they stop looking for these safe passes, and generally either throw a shot from distance on net, or dump it in, or half-dump it to a guy who’s racing in. If they recover the dump-in and get set up, then they start passing again. But there’s this middle ground where the Sens seem like they’ve done enough if the puck is in the other team’s end.
Anyway, I digress. The first period ended 0-0, in part because of some big Nilsson saves. In particular, there was one late where he gloved down a rocket of a point shot and kind of bobbled it, but smothered the puck while falling backwards. It was the kind of save that looked to me like a goalie dialed in. I didn’t want to say anything out loud, but it looked like the kind of save that suggested a shutout was coming. And other than Brian Gibbons get absolutely destroyed by Michael Del Zotto, not much of interest happened in the period.
The second period saw the Sens actually wrestle back control of the game. After looking like they hardly belonged in the first, They actually outshot the Blues 13-8 in the period, and got the only goal of the period. It was one of those plays after they got set up that I talked about earlier. It actually happened on a near-loss of possession too, with Brady Tkachuk hustling to beat out an icing. Then the Sens got the cycle going, and things actually went beautifully. Anthony Duclair deked out Robby Fabbri while bringing the puck back to the line, and really I think Fabbri looked all out of sorts. Then Duclair passed it to Mikkel Boedker down near the faceoff circle. Sensing an opening, Christian Wolanin snuck in while Cody Goloubef backed off to make sure the Sens wouldn’t be caught if the puck went the other way. Boedker hit Wolanin with the perfect pass, Fabbri saw it coming too late and dove to no avail, and Wolanin put in an easy goal past a helpless Jake Allen. It was Wolanin’s fourth goal of the season in just his 20th game, which says to me that maybe he should’ve been playing more in the NHL.
There was a comical moment late in the second, where Tkachuk was trying to carry the puck out of the zone but his stick broke. Luckily for him, the puck still left the zone because the Blues had backed off. Tkachuk then skated to the bench, even though the Blues had possession and dumped it back in, probably because he knew they were late in a shift and weren’t going to pressure 5-on-4. On the dump-in, Ben Harpur got the puck and tried to backhand it back around behind the net, but instead put it right on Nilsson, who decided to cover after the pad save even though there were no Blues in sight. Probably a good choice, just to slow down the game with the Sens a bit on their heels. Little did we know it was foreshadowing how lopsided the third would be.
If the ice felt tilted in the first, it had nothing on the third. Shots ended up 14-3 for St. Louis, and one of those Ottawa shots was an empty net goal from centre. It was very much a “hold on and survive” kind of period. And the good news for the Sens was they had a rock-solid goaltender to hold onto that game for them. I lost track of the number of failed clearing attempts by the Sens, the number of defensive zone giveaways. Ryan O’Reilly had a
There was one with about four minutes left that reminded me of the Boedker giveaway from last game that led to the game-winning goal. The difference this time was that with the 3-on-1 down low, Nilsson sprang across to take away the Alex Steen one-timer, just getting enough of the puck to deflect it off the crossbar. When you’re on, things keep going your way.
That mostly sealed the Blues’ fate, but then with just under a minute left Chris Tierney stole the puck, skated up the ice and put an exclamation point on it with an empty netter. That did it, with the Sens getting just their third shutout victory of the season.
- Hard to say more about Nilsson. He was calm, collected, dialed in, and effective. It felt like a game that he wasn’t going to get beaten, a goaltending performance I haven’t seen in a long time for a Sens goalie.
- Erik Brannstrom was about what I expected. His skating was beautiful, and his passing with the puck was mostly crisp. He also seemed small, and a couple of times he seemed caught out by a guy finishing his check. Still, he looked pretty good for an NHL debut.
- Max Veronneau didn’t really stand out to me, but he did get more ice time than five forwards (including, curiously, Duclair) and finished as the second-best forward in terms of 5v5 shot attempts in a game in which, admittedly, all the Sens were outshot. When crowd-sourcing Twitter opinions, my favourite description came from @brenteriksmith who described his game as “local”.