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Five Thoughts for Friday: On Nikita Zaitsev, Jake Lucchini, a December Hot Streak & More

For this week’s Five Thoughts, we take a look at some positive storylines for the Senators.

NHL: DEC 12 Ducks at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This Friday is a Friday like no other here at Silver Seven because one of the staff is going to present you with five of their thoughts. Wait, hold on, I’m hearing this happens every week? Ah well, nevertheless, we press onwards!

This weeks five thoughts has a theme: optimism.

I’m going to give you some happy thoughts that I have about your Ottawa Senators. Buckle up, it’s about to get cheery up in here.

On Nikita Zaitsev

Yes, that’s right. I have positive thoughts about Nikita Zaitsev. I’ll take a pause for all of you to pick your jaws up off the floor.

Alright, here we go.

Before Sens fans started complaining about Nikita Zaitsev, Leafs fans were doing it. Every team has a whipping boy, and Zaitsev has unfortunately been it for two fanbases for almost his entire NHL career. I’m not here to tell you the criticisms of his on ice play were unjust - they were quite just, really. But it’s really important to call out the good when the good happens and, let me tell you, something good has happened!

Since being recalled from Belleville after a less than surprising waiver move by the Senators earlier this season, Zaitsev has more than held his own. With Artem Zub out of the picture, he’s been thrust back into a role he shouldn’t have been in previously and he’s done what he’s needed to do. He’s been steady and relatively error free while his partner Thomas Chabot moves the puck and does what he needs to do.

It makes you wonder if, after all this time, Zaitsev was trying to do too much?

Anecdotally, it’s felt like Zaitsev has started moving the puck more effectively and what I noticed, specifically on Wednesday night against Montreal, is that he’s been making short, easy passes. Instead of hucking it off the glass and out, he’s been finding the closest player to him and moving the puck in that direction.

I’m not about to say that the player should remain at the top of the lineup when Zub returns, but I am saying that if he keeps playing like he has, the outrage of seeing his name on the roster across a large portion of the fanbase will subside.

Keep it up, Nikita! We’re pulling for you! Honestly!

On Jake Lucchini

Wednesday night’s TV broadcast talked a little bit about Jake Lucchini’s journey to his first NHL game and I have to say, as the Belleville guy ‘round these parts, it was heartwarming to see Luch get the spotlight for a moment.

Before last season, Ottawa acquired Lucchini for future considerations from Montreal while he was on an AHL contract. Prior to joining Belleville, the British Columbia native spent parts of seasons with Laval and Wilkes-Barre Scranton. In those games, he compiled a total of 33 points in 104 contests.

It goes without saying that he took the opportunity presented to him in Belleville and ran with it. That first season, he produced to the tune of 51 points in 72 games. This saw him go from a 0.32 points per game AHLer to 0.71 in the blink of an eye. Sometimes we see this in the AHL and it ends up being a blip. But not for Luch, not even close. This season Lucchini sits right behind Egor Sokolov at the top of Belleville’s scoring list with 0.96 pts/gp.

Needless to say, his recall on Wednesday was not only a heartwarming story; it was absolutely earned.

By the time he hit 27 years old, Jake Lucchini went from the BCHL to four full years in the NCAA - which saw him end his collegiate career as the captain of Michigan Tech - to some professional tryouts in the AHL to his first NHL game.

Oh, and to top it off, he got the goggles after his first NHL game.

Not too bad, Luch!

On December

I think I speak for all Sens fans everywhere when I say: holy #@$& am I happy November is long in the rearview mirror.

Since the calendar flipped to the final month of the year, the Sens have dramatically rebounded from an abysmal month of hockey in November. In fact, they’re currently 5-1-1 in December, with their only regulation loss coming against the LA Kings in that game we’re all going to forget about and move on from.

Some of what we’re seeing is the team finally getting rewarded for their solid play; it wasn’t popular to say it at the time but they were due. In November, their underlying numbers were still quite good! The number of games in which they’d outshoot and out-chance their opponent but still find themselves trailing after the first (or second) period was mind boggling. Now, they’ve stuck with the program and fans are seeing a team that’s winning while they also play well.

For the month of December, not only do they have an impressive 5-1-1 record, they also rank 10th league wide in CF%, 18th in xGF%, 15th in HDCF% and 15th in team save percentage. These are all basically playoff numbers, folks! The Sens are playing like a team that can contend for a playoff spot, they just need to keep the momentum rolling and close out December with a few more wins to make sure they’re truly in the picture when 2023 begins in just a few short weeks.

On Alex DeBrincat

I think we all expected Alex DeBrincat to join the Senators and score 50 goals. Many of us, myself included, were riding high from the Summer of Pierre™ and expected the best case scenario to happen.

Needless to say, that while DeBrincat has mostly been playing well, he just hasn’t been scoring at the rate we might have dreamed. He’s riding a career low shooting percentage, even now that he’s picked things up a little bit in the goal department, and we were really giving him a hard time about it.

Our short king is up to 27 points in 29 games and boasts a 51.85 CF% to go along with it. The fact he’s not scoring at his career is, to my mind, basically a complete non-issue when he’s almost at a point per game while riding a career low shooting percentage. The guy is a stud and he’s going to continue being a major factor in Ottawa getting back into the playoff picture.

All Hail our Short King!

On Erik Brännström

Speaking of short kings, Erik Brännström has been fantastic this season. Some folks are focused on his lack of offensive production but what we’re seeing from the young Swede so far this season is a third pairing, puck moving defender who has been incredibly solid all year long.

What you want from your third pair is to either not notice them or to occasionally notice them for good reasons. Ottawa has a history, particularly recently, of playing defenders who do not, in any way, fit the bill on the third pair. It’s always been big, slow, experienced blueliners with hands of stone - literal stone, not Mark Stone.

Brännström has quietly turned into one of the better third pairing defenders the Sens have seen in a long, long time. He’s consistently able to help his team transition the puck up ice, avoiding long stretches of being hemmed in his own zone.

At even strength, Brännström actually leads the Senators blueline with a 55.80 CF%. Through 380 5v5 minutes, the Sens have out-chanced their opponents 423 to 335. That’s a big margin! While it’s understandable to take this with a grain of salt given Brännström isn’t facing the best of the best, it’s important to note that Ottawa’s bottom pair would be getting absolutely torched by the same level of competition in any other season.

All Hail our Other Short King!