Like many of you reading this article, I went through a variety of emotions during the Ottawa Senators’ thrilling 5-3 victory over the New York Rangers on Thursday night. If you had a recording of me watching the game it would probably have sounded like a confused garble of joyful screaming, mournful wailing, and some occasional thrashing. In short, it felt like I was watching a play-off game for the first time since 2017. It was a lot.
Jakob Chychrun making his Sens debut, Derick Brassard playing in his 1000th game, the lingering high from the back-to-back thumping of the Detroit Red Wings — there were a lot of reasons that emotions were already running high before puck drop. As in both their games earlier this week against the Wings, the Sens went down early when Chris Kreider scored on a short-handed breakaway just 6:31 into the game. After all the hype, it was a good reminder that, yes, the Rangers are still a good team, and, yes, the Sens would have to play a strong game to take one from them at Madison Square Garden.
Things got worse before they could get better when Austin Watson took an ill-advised charging penalty against former Sen Tyler Motte:
Austin Watson received a five minute major for charging Tyler Motte and a game misconduct. pic.twitter.com/hkQGHv6to3— B/R Open Ice (@BR_OpenIce) March 3, 2023
Watson’s brand of hockey is such that he will always be trying to throw a big hit, but that’s a textbook charge if I’ve ever seen one. It was especially unfortunate to see Motte, who has struggled with concussions, clearly injured on the play. He did not return to the game.
Everything can seem pre-determined in hindsight, but looking back on how the rest of the game played out, none of it would have been possible if the Sens hadn’t been able to kill the major off. Their success in doing so, and then killing a bench minor to boot before the end of the first period, was a combination of some stellar working from the PK units and some uncharacteristic sloppiness from the Rangers with the man advantage. Maybe the most encouraging development of the evening: when the Sens were able to keep the game at 5v5, they looked great.
When the second period began, the Sens unfortunately put themselves in a bad spot with some more undisciplined play, this time from Chychrun who was sent to the box for slashing. After some more virtuoso work on the PK, the Sens were finally able to establish themselves in a game that had been played hard but unevenly. Two goals in rapid succession, including one from Brassard on his special night, really got the blood pumping:
Pinto slams this one into the back of the net!#GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/bnfT3G8RgT— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) March 3, 2023
Brass lights the lamp in game no. 1000! #GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/5n8ceb8Aq4— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) March 3, 2023
Alas the Sens would suffer a couple of unfortunate breakdowns not long there after allowing first Jacob Trouba and then Vladimir Tarasenko, on a beautiful breakaway move, to restore the Rangers’ advantage. With the score line 3-2 after two, this game was more than living up to all the hype.
It is often said that to be the best, you have to beat the best. I’m not sure that the Sens are quite ready to be the “best” but if they are trying to be a play-off team it only follows that they’ll need to show they can beat play-off calibre teams. Their performance in the third period of tonight’s game was a big step in proving that is possible.
Ottawa notched three goals before the period was five minutes old; first Brassard with his second of the game, then Claude Giroux, then Brady Tkachuk:
1000 games of experience led to this goal, that is undeniable.#GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/FavQeMJSnm— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) March 3, 2023
Giroux is FIRED UP to take the lead! #GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/Da9l14ztaz— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) March 3, 2023
If you’re wondering why I included two highlight clips when I mentioned that there were three goals, that’s because the Tkachuk goal was eventually called back for off-side. It was mighty close, but the Rangers were ultimately proven correct in challenging that the captain hadn’t quite kept his trailing leg onside.
Before the Sens could close out the win, however, there was a brief injury scare to the newly acquired Chychrun. The big defenseman collided with Filip Chytil in a race for the puck and seemed to twist his right leg awkwardly. He stayed down on the ice for a good bit, but eventually made it to the bench under his own power and stayed in the game. Crisis hopefully averted.
In the end, the Rangers couldn’t muster the necessary pressure to find the tying goal, suffering a bit perhaps in the second game of a back-to-back, and Tim Stützle buried an empty-netter for the 5-3 final.
- The intensity of the play, and the atmosphere of the arena, was absolutely electric on Thursday night. In the intro I wrote that it felt like a play-off game. While that was maybe a bit of a stretch, it wasn’t far from the truth. Seeing the Sens stand up to that type of team, in that type of environment, was incredible and not something we’ve seen around these parts for almost six years.
- My first impressions of Chychrun were generally positive: he skated well, made a couple of solid defensive plays, and showed some tantalizing offensive instincts. His pairing with Holden got roughed up a bit, which I comment on in more detail below, but individually he looked the part to me. Now we just need to hope he’s still 100% healthy after that fall into the boards.
- Speaking of Chychrun, he gave an interview with TSN during the second intermission that really tugged at the ol’ heart strings in which he talked about getting a bit emotional when he was telling family he was coming home to Ottawa.
- After the Watson penalty, the Sens were down to 11 forwards but they functionally only used nine for the third period. Julien Gauthier and Mark Kastelic each played one shift in the frame, and neither saw the ice for the last fifteen minutes. Smith has never really had to coach meaningful games before in his tenure in Ottawa, so I am very interested to see what kind of deployment choices, especially in high leverage situations, he makes down the stretch.
- In what is doubtless unsurprising news to regular readers, I was not a fan of Smith’s choice to scratch Erik Brännström. Brännström is plainly a better player than Nick Holden at this point in their respective careers, and the latter looked overwhelmed on more than a couple of occasions. His pairing with Chychrun got crushed at 5v5, bleeding chances and shots against. It was just one game, there are a variety of reasons that Smith might have thought this alignment was the best for this particular game, but it would be a serious error to continue with this particular alignment going forward. Here’s to hoping things are mixed up on Saturday night.