Hard work prevails as Sens battle past Flyers, 2-1

Tyler Ennis and Filip Chlapik score, while Anders Nilsson stands tall (figuratively, and literally)

In D.J. Smith’s first press conference with the Ottawa Senators, he communicated that he wanted the team’s identity to be a physical, hard-working team that others hate to play against. Well, a quarter of the way into his first season with the team, and you’re starting to see those effects.

This timeline makes sense. Recall when Guy Boucher started with the Sens, his first game was a run-and-gun victory against the up-and-coming Toronto Maple Leafs after a training camp of preaching defence and fans were questioning what the plan was. ~25 games in, and we saw the shot blocking, defensive systems that Boucher was preaching, and the team took that into the playoffs.

The key for Smith’s group is to keep growing and learning on a consistent basis.

Having good goaltending certainly helps with this, as having players willing to make plays knowing that they have a capable netminder available to make stops when they are mistakes is key psychologically. Anders Nilsson has shown that he’s been up to the task this season, and did so again tonight — especially in the first 10 minutes of the contest.

While he gave up a goal to Tyler Pitlick 2:26 in, the Flyers stormed out of the gate with five shots on goal and a number of grade-A chances for players with shooting skill, like James Van Riemsdyk, Sean Couturier, and Claude Giroux. The Sens attention to detail was lacking, with marquee names in Thomas Chabot and Jean-Gabriel Pageau making costly turnovers, and the team has a whole having trouble exiting the zone against a blistering Flyers forecheck.

By the end of the period, the team had their feet under them, with shot attempts ending at 19-11 in Ottawa’s favour.

The Sens carried that momentum into the second, with an early powerplay drawn via a Mark Borowiecki stretch pass to Brady Tkachuk drawing a slashing penalty on Kevin Hayes. However, the excellent Flyers penalty kill — having only given up seven powerplay markers — came to play on this initial attempt, with the Sens only generating one shot (off the rush) while facing continuous pressure.

In their second powerplay attempt of the period, the Chabot-led first unit struggled to generate zone time, but the Brännström unit were able to get a much-needed goal. It started with the breakout, with Tyler Ennis circling back to help the team move up the ice as a group, and deceptively positioning his body to the left before kicking the puck wide to a streaking Brännström for the entry. The young Swede went low, and found Ennis in a quiet area, where the pending UFA scored his third (of five!) powerplay goal of the season by sneaking the puck through Carter Hart’s wickets.

Right after the goal, the Sens snoozed for a second and Shayne Gostisbehere quickly generated a 2-on-1 attempt for the Flyers. He shot for the rebound, but Anders Nilsson did not give it to him — a key stop in a critical period of the game. The Sens were able to keep their foot on the gas for the rest of the period, with Zaitsev and Chabot — who were back together tonight — generating the team’s fourth (!) post of the game.

Near the end of the period, the team’s hard work paid off in the go-ahead (and game-winning) goal. Dylan DeMelo channeled his inner baseball player, keeping a puck in at the blue line that was off the ice and appeared destined to clear the zone. With the puck cycled down low, Chris Tierney cleverly lifted the stick of Travis Konency to win a puck battle and found Filip Chlapik in the slot. The young forward continued his hot streak, wiring the puck high past Hart’s glove to give the Sens a lead heading into the third.

The final frame of the game had a lot of positive signs for D.J. Smith — a low-event period (16 total shot attempts at 5-on-5, 11 of which for Philadelphia) that resulted in five shots on goal and two big scoring chances. One of which was a bad bounce with seven minutes left, when a clearing attempt hit the stanchion and sending Oskar Lindblom in for an untouched attempt. While Nilsson kicked out the rebound to the two-time 30-goal scorer, Sean Couturier, the Flyers forward put the puck wide.

There was also an extended ‘bend but not break’ shift, where Brännström, Hainsey, White, Ennis, and Namestnikov were caught on the ice for two minutes. While I generally think that the “keeping it wide” mantra can sometimes be overused by coaches when a team is unduly getting flooded with shot attempts, this group really did keep the Flyers wide — with sticks in lanes and the Flyers looking for the perfect attempt.

Four of the final five minutes were spent on the penalty kill, courtesy of an errant Colin White high-stick on Claude Giroux that led to a bloody lip. Here, the Sens penalty killers did an exceptional job, limiting pressure until Alain Vigneault pulled his goaltender for a 6-on-4 advantage for the final two minutes. It’s a tactic that Vigneault may want to employ earlier next time, because that’s when the Flyers were able to consistently win pucks against desperate Sens defenders and channel shots towards goal. Ultimately, the Sens killed the penalty, and swarmed Nilsson upon victory.

Some additional thoughts:

  • I’ve been preaching the play of Filip Chlapik all season, and the young Czech worked hard tonight to provide more glimpses of strong play. While his goal stands out, it’s his competitive attitude that is a positive sign for me. In the second period, there was a shift after a dismal powerplay where he won a 50/50 puck battle against two Flyers on the rush and fed the puck to Logan Brown, which generated an open-net attempt that was missed by Bobby Ryan. While he took a penalty on that shift for being too intense while heading to the net, that workmanlike attitude from Chlapik — especially physically in a fourth line role — is something D.J. Smith has been preaching. His linemates have steadily increased in NHL ability, and his line with Tierney and Ryan worked hard all night — even drawing a penalty back themselves. Watching his ice-time over the next two weeks will be indicative of how Smith sees him, especially with players like Rudolfs Balcers (who scored two goals tonight in his return to the BSens lineup!), Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton, and Vitaly Abramov breathing down his neck.
  • As per usual, the Sens played a fair amount of the game shorthanded and the penalty kill was really tested tonight. On the Chlapik penalty in the second, the Flyers were in the Sens zone for ~85% of the time, and Nilsson had to be up to the task to turn aside two big chances from Van Riemsdyk in tight and Giroux in the slot. During the final four minutes, the play of Connor Brown was exemplary. It’s strange to see the ex-Leafs checker leading Sens forwards in ice-time with nearly ~20 minutes a game, but his extended shorthanded minutes contributes to that significantly. /
  • Another night, another game where the Sens come out on top in expected goals (xG). Per Natural Stat Trick, the Sens locked down a close, defensive contest tonight — generating 1.57 xG to the Flyers 1.46. Bobby Ryan, Filip Chlapik, and Chris Tierney had the best shot metrics despite all playing <10 minutes of ice, and the second-pair (because that’s the minutes they play!!!!) of Dylan DeMelo and Mark Borowiecki were on the ice for 21 shot attempts for compared to 11 against. /

Game Flow

While you can see the Sens start clearly depicted at the start of the first period (left), the team battled back halfway in, and kept the pressure up until they opted to lock it down in the third.

Heat Map

Pretty even looking heat maps tonight, reflecting that Anders Nilsson’s 28-shot workload had some difficult stops worked in, and that the Sens worked hard to generate much of the same on Carter Hart, even though not all of their attempts were on goal.

The Sens’ month of back-to-backs continue, with the team flying to Buffalo to face the Sabres at 7:00pm EST tomorrow.

P.S. Don’t look now, but with another Leafs loss to the Bruins, Ottawa sits just five points back of the “CUP CONTENDING” Maple Leafs. This won’t (shouldn’t?) continue, but thought I’d work it in here anyway ;)

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