Are the Ottawa Senators back? You know what, I think they might very well be. Sure, they aren’t back in the win column after tonight’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but a 2-1 loss in which you could argue the team was only slightly outplayed is a commendable effort.
Ottawa got off to a good start against the back-to-back champs, gaining a 4-1 advantage in shots on goal. Their defense, featuring a return to form for Victor Mete, looked good for the most part, but turnovers from Nikita Zaitsev, Zach Sanford, and Austin Watson forced Anton Forsberg to make a couple of strong saves. Zaitsev would also suffer a lower-body injury early on, reducing Ottawa’s defensive corps to a five-man unit, one of which was Dillon Heatherington, who played 12 minutes in the entire game.
Despite this, the Senators kept themselves in a game in which a single move from an incredibly skilled player could give them the lead. And Thomas Chabot, goal-scoring slump aside, is certainly an incredibly skilled player. Picking off an ill-advised pass from Ryan McDonagh, he used his speed to dart around McDonagh and went top-shelf on Andrei Vasilevskiy to finish off a wonderful individual effort for his first goal of the season.
Ottawa went into the first intermission up 1-0 in goals and 7-6 in shots. Nursing a one-goal lead for 40 minutes against a top team would be a brutal assignment, so the Senators naturally looked to double their lead, with Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson both getting chances on 2-on-1 attempts.
Unfortunately, Tampa Bay would tie up the game early in the frame, as Tkachuk was caught flat-footed, creating a rush chance that was finished off by Alex Killorn.
Killorn finishes a beautiful play from Cirelli. 1-1. pic.twitter.com/6HBevO8EDk— Alex Metzger (@nhlsensandstuff) December 17, 2021
Unsatisfied with the even score, both teams quickly traded opposites in pursuit of the next goal. Connor Brown in particular had a great opportunity to grab the go-ahead goal on a breakaway, but Vasilevskiy stood tall once again.
In the midst of one of his weaker performances this year, Tim Stützle made an errant pass in transition, and Alex Formenton took a penalty on the ensuing Tampa possession. Nick Paul and Nick Holden were instrumental in killing the bulk of it, and Dylan Gambrell missed the net on a shorthanded chance. Though he made Victor Hedman look pretty silly in the process.
I can't ignore it anymore. I like Dylan Gambrell. Dude works his ass off. There's a reason DJ loves him. pic.twitter.com/FokKOi8hbC— Lalime's Martian (@LalimesMartian) December 17, 2021
Hedman would get his revenge, however, as the Senators found themselves on the PK once again following an interference call on Tkachuk. Hedman forced a point shot through Forsberg to give Tampa the lead.
A third Sens penalty — on Watson for boarding — looked to bring about the end for the Senators. In November, it would’ve been, long before that moment. But Formenton and Brown went to work, quickly getting the puck in the offensive zone, and forced Steven Stamkos into a tripping penalty. The period ended with a few seconds of 4-on-4, and Ottawa trailing in shots 18-16.
Ottawa would get a huge opportunity to tie up the game early in the third period, as after Watson left the box, Anthony Cirelli held Josh Norris from a decent shot, giving Ottawa a 5-on-3 for 23 seconds. Despite some good looks, they didn’t make things difficult enough for Vasilevskiy. From there, the game slowed down considerably. The Senators had their fair share of chances to get the equalizer. Gambrell got another high-danger shot attempt (on goal this time!) and Tkachuk caught Vasilevskiy off guard with a quick shot off the post, but yet another penalty further cut into what little time the Senators had left.
Despite continuing to look like an infinitely better team from the trainwreck on ice we saw weeks ago, the Senators weren’t able to get that perfect shot to beat Vasilevskiy, as last year’s Vezina Trophy runner-up made 25 shots on 26 saves to secure the 2-1 victory for his team, while Anton Forsberg had another strong performance himself, stopping 25 of 27.
- Despite allowing the game-winning goal, Ottawa’s penalty kill ironically kept them in this game. Things easily could’ve gotten ugly had it not been for the combined efforts of Nick Paul, Dylan Gambrell, Austin Watson, and others. In the future, limiting the number of penalties in any given span of time will be key, even if you’re not playing a team as good as the Lightning. That said, some of those calls... I know I’m biased, but it really seems like the team has been on the wrong side of the officiating on most nights.
- I can’t really think of anyone who had a truly fantastic game, but I’ll say that our best player tonight was Connor Brown. Beyond leading the team with a 5-on-5 expected goals share of over 61%, he forced several turnovers throughout the game both at even-strength and on the PK, and looked especially dangerous in the second period. He hasn’t been great this season in spite of his production, but tonight’s effort was a major step in the right direction.
- With a loss, D.J. Smith finally has reason to tweak the lineup and give Jacob Bernard-Docker some much-needed NHL minutes. Keeping the 2018 first-round pick out of the lineup against the Florida teams was understandable, but the Philadelphia Flyers, 3-6-1 in their last 10 games, is as good an opportunity as any to jump into the fray.
- Thomas Chabot played 30:06, over half of the game tonight. I don’t think I need to say anything else.
Stats (from NaturalStatTrick):
Momentum was a pendulum for most of the game tonight, but Tampa did a fantastic job in the third period to limit Ottawa’s push for the tying goal.
Neither team had much trouble targeting the front of the net in this game. In contrast, they both were very quiet along the blue line.
- The only way to build on a loss is to win, and it’ll be another road game against the Philadelphia Flyers, who are, as I alluded to earlier, in roughly the same weight class as the Senators these days. After a stretch of inspired play against cup contenders, this feels like a must-win game even though it really shouldn’t be. Look forward to the action on Saturday, December 18th, at 7:00 pm EST.