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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