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‘A guy we can’t really replace’: Senators sorely miss Chabot vs. Leafs – Sportsnet.ca

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The Ottawa Senators could be excused for literally cringing any time they go into a game without defenceman Thomas Chabot.

Fortunately, it has only happened twice this season. Neither time was pretty: a 7-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, and an 8-5 pasting by the Edmonton Oilers on Jan. 31 – a 15-8 composite score.

More fun with figures: that projects to 420 goals against in a 56-game season, and a goal differential of minus-196.

Even for the last-place Senators, those numbers are far from representing the team they can be when Chabot is in the lineup and playing 25-plus minutes per game. In fact, lately the Senators have relied even more heavily on Chabot, who has averaged 25:29 this season. Over his previous three games, Chabot played 26:09 (Feb. 17 vs. Leafs), 27:58 (Feb. 15 OT win vs. Leafs), 28:43 (Feb. 13’s 2-1 win vs. Winnipeg Jets).

Chabot, who is day-to-day with an upper-body injury, was especially conspicuous by his absence in Thursday’s ugly loss to Toronto. The Senators had a horrible time getting out of their own end, the Leafs were able to wheel, spin and cycle like the Harlem Globetrotters, and as often as not, the puck ended up in Ottawa’s net.

Entire sequences began when Ottawa’s defenders were unable to get the puck out of their zone.

“Thomas is a guy that plays 27 minutes a game for us, and who breaks us out,” said Senators head coach D.J. Smith. “Other guys are certainly doing their best out there, but it’s not Thomas Chabot.

“Sometimes you take for granted a guy like him. And how much he brings to your team. And how much he can get the rest of the team the puck. We certainly struggled there.”

Smith wasn’t alone in lamenting the loss of Chabot. Player after player was talking about the challenge of playing without him, with the defence pairings tossed into a blender.

Winger Connor Brown, who scored twice against his former team this week, noted that instead of clean breakouts, the Senators were chipping and hoping.

“A big part of it was we didn’t break the puck out as well,” Brown said, comparing Thursday’s game to the 2-1 loss Wednesday and 6-5 OT comeback win Monday. “We found ourselves chipping it away and them quick-upping us a lot more. When you break out of the zone it’s a lot easier to end up in the other zone, spend some time down there and they have less legs to go back and play offence.”

Asked specifically about the loss of Chabot, Brown said: “He’s a big part of what makes our team go. He makes so many good plays out of our zone, and with his feet. He provides offence from our end to their end.”

With three goals and nine points in 17 games, Chabot’s production is down slightly from last season when he had 39 points and played in every one of Ottawa’s 71 games. But the Senators as a team are not scoring like they did last season, averaging 2.3 goals per game compared to 3.4 in 2019-20.

And yet Chabot has the best Corsi (52.7) and Fenwick (53.6) numbers of his career, which back up what we are seeing – the Senators have the puck more and generate more shots when Chabot is on the ice.

“He’s a guy we can’t really replace,” said Senators defenceman Mike Reilly, who played 17:50 on Thursday and joined Nikita Zaitsev (22:19) as the only Ottawa D-men who didn’t have a negative in the plus-minus department. Both were even.

Murray shoulders blame

With COVID restrictions, there is no such thing as a post-game scrum or open dressing rooms this season. Media co-ordinate player requests with media relations staff and, as the game winds down, know beforehand which players are scheduled to speak via Zoom after the horn sounds.

Except that after Thursday’s loss, reporters were surprised to see goaltender Matt Murray sit down in the chair to field questions, as he wasn’t on the list of expected interviews. The Senators goaltender, who came on in relief of the injured Marcus Hogberg, not only spoke to his teammates about shouldering the blame for the defeat, he wanted to be sure the media were aware.

“I didn’t want the team to take too much heat or to think that we played poorly,” Murray said, after yielding six goals on 26 shots. “There was a stretch in the second period where they hemmed us in and they made their chances count. But I think if I do a better job coming in there maybe something goes our way and things turn out differently.

“The bottom line is this one’s on me,” Murray said. “If I just do a better job coming in and keeping the team in the game. Hoggy is in there battling, trying to get us a win. He goes down and I come in, I think it was 1-0, and so I have to do a better job.

“I don’t think the team played a bad game necessarily. It definitely wasn’t a 7-3 game.”

As noble as it was for Murray to take the fall, there was plenty of blame to go around, as discussed above, with the Senators defensive zone coverage and inability to break out of their zone.

While there were a couple of questionable goals on Murray, he did play the night before and went into the game thinking he had the night off. Hogberg tweaked something midway through the first period and is not expected to be available for Sunday’s game at home to the Montreal Canadiens.

Joey Daccord is expected to join Murray as the goalie tandem for the foreseeable future. In fact, Smith would have liked to put Daccord into Thursday’s game, to get him some reps, but was denied the option because the third-stringer is only supposed to play when there is an emergency – if Murray had been injured along with Hogberg, for example.

Smith said Murray could be excused for not being at his best, considering he was expecting a night of rest.

“We’ll just wipe that off the record and get back to work,” Smith said.

On the season, Murray is 2-9-1 with a goals-against of 3.82 and a .877 save percentage. He has had four impressive starts this month in games against Montreal (2), Edmonton and Toronto.

Slowly forging an identity

While the Senators are clearly vulnerable to being torched by a high-octane offence like the Toronto Maple Leafs, especially when Ottawa is missing its premier defenceman, there are signs of slight improvement.

The Senators have defeated the first-place Leafs twice in five meetings. Moreover, an Ottawa team that gave up five or more goals five times in the month of January, has only been lit up for five or more three times in 10 February matchups. Six of those 10 games have been one-goal games.

In nine January dates, the Senators played in just two one-goal games.

A lot of players are using the ‘I’ word – Identity – in interviews, unprompted, which leads us to believe they are talking about it in the dressing room.

“We’re starting to understand our identity and we’ve got to keep pushing towards the way we know we can play,” Brown said on Thursday night.

What is that identity? It was on full display in Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to the Leafs, a game of tight checking and serious neutral-zone clogging by the Senators. On nights when they force teams to dump in pucks and are able to retrieve and get it up ice, Ottawa can hang around in games and potentially win a few.

It is predicated on solid goaltending and crisp breakouts. When the question was put to Smith – What does your team look like when it is most effective? – the head coach ticked off mostly defensive boxes, along with a smooth transition game.

“We break the puck out, we track, we limit odd man rushes,” Smith said. “We’re hard in the D-zone. And (Thursday) we struggled with that, we didn’t break out very well.”

Smith might have added: the Senators don’t quit, a part of their identity in 2019-20.

Admittedly, the game was out of reach by this point, but Ottawa outshot the Leafs 16-7 in the third period to produce the Senators third goal of the game.

“I loved our pushback in the third,” Murray said. “That’s what we can build on.”

If nothing else, this Senators group is used to trailing in games. No big deal.

Rookie winger Tim Stützle got Ottawa on the board when he roofed a first-period goal from a sharp angle – a snipe so unexpected and daring that it had Senators fans buzzing. It was Stützle’s fifth of the season, leaving him tied for second in rookie goals behind Chicago’s Pius Suter with six. With nine points, Stützle is one behind Suter and Senators centre Josh Norris, who both have 10 points to lead all rookies.

More positive signs for a Senators team limping home after playing five games in eight nights, and seven in 11. The past five have been on the road.

The Canadiens visit the Canadian Tire Centre Sunday at 7 p.m. on Sportsnet.

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Maple Leafs ‘have to look in the mirror’ after being swept by Canucks – Sportsnet.ca

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We often describe this game we love with rugged adjectives.

Hockey is gritty and requires sandpaper. It’s greasy and gutsy. Hard-nosed. A series of tough battles that will be won by the side triumphing in the dirty areas. Those ugly trenches.

The game can be looked at another way, too.

Fragile.

A disappointed Sheldon Keefe used that adjective twice on Saturday in the aftermath of his Toronto Maple Leafs’ 4-2 defeat by the hand of the 21st-place Vancouver Canucks, who swept this mini-series without top-line centre Elias Pettersson in their lineup.

It marked the first comeback victory of Vancouver’s campaign and the first set of consecutive regulation losses the Maple Leafs have suffered all year. It’s also the first time Toronto superstars Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner have both been held off the scoresheet in back-to-back games.

Much like Game 1 of the series, Toronto ran up against a hot power-play and a razor-sharp goaltender in Thatcher Demko.

Unlike Thursday’s defeat, however, the visitors controlled the run of play for the bulk of the night.

Brock Boeser converted net-front on a beautiful cross-ice J.T. Miller pass on an early rush with Matthews serving a high-sticking minor, but the Leafs responded with a pair of pretty passing plays on their own at even-strength.

John Tavares clapped a blast clean and high by Demko after a nifty one-touch area pass from winger Alexander Kerfoot. Then Jimmy Vesey converted a tic-tac-toe sequence from Jason Spezza and T.J. Brodie.

Toting a 2-1 lead into the third, Toronto fired the first nine shots of the final period and looked poised to lock up another ‘W’.

Momentum spun on a dime when an unpressured William Nylander committed a puck-over-glass penalty — “Can’t just give them a freebie like that,” Keefe said — and Bo Horvat promptly tied the game with the man-advantage.

“We’ve got to get a kill. We’ve got to get a blocked shot. These are the kind of things that make a big difference,” Keefe said. “We didn’t really go through that in [sweeping] the Edmonton series. We were in full control. We built big leads for the most part.”

The Canucks’ power-play went a perfect 3-for-3 in the series; Toronto went 0-for-3. There’s the difference.

“The power-play goal really gave them some life,” Tavares said.

A pair of neutral zone giveaways by the Leafs led to odd-man rushes the other way. Bang, bang: A hungry Miller and Nils Hoglander cashed in.

In 42 seconds, a win poofed into a loss and a great road trip got downgraded to a good road trip.

Fragile.

Beat on the Miller strike, fumbling at the puck first with his hands then with his feet, Morgan Rielly pointed to sloppy details: special teams, puck management and D-zone breakouts.

“We have to take responsibility for what happened in terms of two losses,” Rielly said. “I mean, we have to look in the mirror.”

Marner wondered if the top line was trying to force plays that weren’t there.

“Sometimes it slips away. It happened tonight,” said Marner, a minus-2 for the first time all season. “Turnovers were the reason for it, so just make sure we clean that part up. Obviously starting [with] myself.”

The Maple Leafs will fly home Sunday and sharpen their details on Monday in preparation for next week’s three-game series versus their nearest pursuers in the North, the Winnipeg Jets.

“These are really close, very fragile games. You’ve got to be good every single shift and every puck,” Keefe said. “Vancouver plays four lines. They play extremely hard and very competitive. They don’t give you anything for free.

“It just goes to show that, first of all, anybody in our division can beat you on any given night. We’ve got to be good all the time and we’ve got to stay with the process that works for us. Go off script and get the results you get here.”

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Flames start hot, burn out vs. Oilers as new coach Sutter watches from afar – Sportsnet.ca

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The Jolly Rancher didn’t even have to be behind the bench to start Sutterizing his new team.

While Darryl Sutter watched from his farmhouse in Viking, Alta., as part of his COVID-19 protocol, the Calgary Flames responded to his hiring with a first period that exhibited the type of spirited start the veteran taskmaster will be pushing for.

Fully engaged from puck drop, the Flames took it to the Oilers in a rugged fashion befitting the Battle of Alberta and Sutter’s style.

Two first-period fights, 21 shots, a whopping 19 hits and a tenacious forecheck that led to a power play goal and a 1-0 lead.

Clearly they knew the boss was watching.

And then came the predictable drop-off that got Geoff Ward fired.

Failing to record a shot in the first seven minutes of the second, the Flames allowed the Oilers to push back and eventually even the game late in the frame.

From there the see-saw battle continued.

By night’s end it was the Oilers earning kudos for persevering through a tough spell that ended with Connor McDavid’s late goal, ending his club’s three-game losing skid.

While there’s little time in this shortened season to celebrate moral victories, no one could fault the Flames’ effort on this one.

“It’s obviously difficult to lose – I thought we had a really good start,” said Noah Hanifin, whose first goal of the year early in the third put the Flames up 2-1 following the type of grind-em-out shift from Elias Lindholm’s line Sutter would cherish.

“I think if we play that way and compete that way we’ll have success more often than not. The one thing we’re looking to improve on is our compete and work ethic and I think that was there tonight. It was a step in the right direction.”

Perhaps Sutter’s tack will include being furious with the mere suggestion progress was made.

However, it didn’t seem there was much Sutter could fault his new troops on early in the third when Lindholm, Dillon Dube and Matthew Tkachuk put their work boots on for a series of battles down low that led to Hanifin’s goal.

“When we have big, heavy shifts like that it’s going to help us wear down teams and have success,” the defenceman said.

“That’s the game we want to play.”

McDavid spoiled Ryan Huska’s coaching debut by setting up a Kailer Yamamoto goal five minutes later, before picking up his third point of the night with a snipe from the face-off dot that bounced in off the far post with four minutes left.

“I think we played the whole game — I thought we played great,” said Jacob Markstrom, who made 30 saves in his return from injury, yet still tried to fall on his sword post-game.

“The biggest difference tonight was goaltending. I think Smitty (Mike Smith) made a couple saves and I didn’t when I needed to. It sucks feeling like you didn’t bail out your teammates.

“I thought we played a great game over 60 minutes. There are obviously things to improve, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. It sucks getting the loss out of this game when the guys played so well in front of me.”

The highly entertaining display of big boy hockey saw the Oilers finish the night with two more hits than the Flames (42-40), and they deserve plenty of credit for the moxie they displayed throughout.

Darnell Nurse did his best to stop the Flames’ early momentum by dropping the gloves with his former teammate and pal Milan Lucic, earning the latter the distinction of being the only player ever to earn a fighting major while playing on either side of the provincial punch-up.

James Neal fought Tkachuk later in the period with what would have brought the house down had there been fans at Rogers Place.

“I think (the emotion) was where it needs to be and that’s the challenge moving forward,” said Huska, whose NHL head coaching experience now matches the number of games he played in the show – one.

“The effort in the first period was really good. There was an emotional attachment to the game, which was important for us. That’s something we have to work on maintaining for 60 minutes, not just the first period. I thought we gave up a little too much room as the game went on and we allowed them to get into our zone too easily, which is really how they got their three goals.”

Huska will be behind the bench again Sunday night when the Flames host Ottawa.

Sutter expects to complete his COVID-19 protocol before joining the team for practice Tuesday and will make his return to the Flames’ bench Thursday at home against Montreal.

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Four-goal explosion in second period powers Canadiens 7-1 over Jets – Montreal Gazette

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It was Montreal’s first win over Winnipeg in four games this season, moving them three points behind the second-place Jets in the Canadian division.

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Carey Price made 28 saves and all four lines contributed at least one goal as the Canadiens defeated the Winnipeg Jets 7-1 Saturday at the Bell Centre.

It was Montreal’s first win over Winnipeg in four games this season and the Canadiens moved three points behind the second-place Jets in the Canadian division. Montreal also enjoys a game in hand.

The Canadiens blew this game open with four goals in the second period.

After Tyler Toffoli scored his 15th goal of the season, Brendan Gallagher scored twice. Both of Gallagher’s goals — his eighth and ninth of the season — were scored from the slot after taking a couple of no-look passes from long-time linemate Phil Danault.

The Gallagher goals brought an end to Connor Hellebuyck’s evening. The 2020 Vézina Trophy winner gave up four goals on 19 shots.

Laurent Brossoit replaced Hellebuyck, but he received a rude welcome when he was beaten by Joel Armia on the first shot he faced.

The game got off to a slow start, but opened up after Mathieu Perreault was sent off for high-sticking Shea Weber midway through the first period. The much-improved Montreal power play didn’t look much-improved as it managed only one shot on goal, but it did provide the Canadiens with some momentum.

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Hellebuyck made a blocker save on Jonathan Drouin, who was sent off on a breakaway by Gallagher’s stretch pass, but Hellebuyck was out of the picture when Josh Anderson opened the scoring at 15:29.

Anderson, who returned to to the lineup after missing three games with a lower-body injury, took advantage of a lucky bounce to give Montreal the lead. Jesperi Kotkaniemi attempted to rim the puck and Hellebuyck went behind his net to cut off the pass. But the puck never got there because it hit a stanchion in the glass and came out to Anderson, who put the puck into an empty net for his 10th goal of the season.

Fourth-liner Paul Byron and defenceman Jeff Petry added goals for Montreal in the third period, while Perreault scored a power-play goal to spoil Price’ shutout bid.

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Dominique Ducharme did some line juggling and put his two top goal-scorers, Toffoli and Anderson on a line with Kotkaniemi. The young Finn responded with what might have been his best game of the season as he distributed the puck well and was a dominant player in the faceoff circle. He won 13 of 15 draws for an 87-per-cent success rate. Danault won seven of his 12 faceoffs and Jake Evans won four of six. The Canadiens as a team won 57 per cent.

The Canadiens flew Sunday to Vancouver, where they face the Canucks to open a six-game Western Canada trip. The schedule maker has done a favour for fans in Montreal because none of the games start later than 8 p.m. ET.

phickey@postmedia.com

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