MONTREAL — In the hallway outside of the visitors dressing room at the Bell Centre on Tuesday morning, Tim Stützle was reminded about his last visit to this arena.
The young Senators star quickly morphed into public enemy No. 1 for Montreal fans April 5 as he was accused of embellishing a knee-on-knee hit from Canadiens centre Nick Suzuki.
“I remember the last time I played here I got booed. It’s awesome because the crowd has always been great,” Stützle said. “If we play a good game tonight, I think it will be fun.”
Nine hours after he made that statement — and after a frenetic and entertaining 5-4 Senators victory over the Canadiens — Stützle was once again commenting on the patrons inside the Bell Centre. Specifically, Stützle was describing the scene as he and Brady Tkachuk were celebrating along the glass after the captain’s game-winning goal with only 1:18 remaining in regulation time.
“Getting a couple of middle fingers from a couple of fans, Chucky loved it,” Stützle said with a laugh. “Everyone knows he’s here for big moments.”
“It felt pretty good to silence the crowd like that,” Tkachuk added. “And take that momentum all away.”
It was a night filled with wild momentum swings and emphatic celebrations.
After Stützle scored his second goal of the evening in the third period, he put both arms in the air in the classic “Are you not entertained?” pose.
Alex DeBrincat was so fired up after scoring a power-play marker in the second period, he couldn’t recall his celebratory move. When asked afterwards about appearing to make his stick look like a sword that he was putting back into its sheath,DeBrincat simply said, “I don’t really remember what I did honestly.”
Sheathe that weapon, Cat! It's lethal!!🚨#GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/xwNTC3X6lv
— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) February 1, 2023
Tuesday’s game was certainly more entertaining than anybody could have anticipated, given the placement of both clubs in the standings. ButThomas Chabot described Ottawa’s frenetic, nail-biting 5-4 victory as if it were an amusement park ride at La Ronde.
“Scary at times, but so much fun,” Chabot said afterwards.
And in some ways, it’s perfect that Ottawa heads into its extended 10-day break on the heels of a roller-coaster victory. Because as it hits the 50-game mark of this campaign, that’s exactly what this season has felt like at times. Exhilarating highs, balanced by soul-crushing lows.
But right now, it feels like Ottawa fans want to embrace the positivity around the club. Thanks to Tuesday’s victory, the Senators have surpassed the .500 points percentage mark for the first time since Oct. 27. And sure, that .500 points percentage is not a true indicator of a legitimate playoff team, but accruing 51 points in 50 games is a legitimate accomplishment for this team given their earlier struggles.
After posting an 8-4-2 record in December, D.J. Smith was adamant that his club needed to follow up that success with a similar month in January. It certainly didn’t look like it would achieve that goal as recently as last week. Fresh off the heels of a pair of disheartening losses to Winnipeg and Pittsburgh, the Senators found themselves with only four wins in 10 games in January.
Earlier this week, Claude Giroux described that point as “rock bottom” for the club.
“We were kind of getting away from our game there. It wasn’t pretty,” DeBrincat said. “We weren’t scoring goals and we weren’t doing anything right.”
But right on cue for their roller-coaster season, the Senators reeled off four consecutive victories. They ended January with a very respectable 8-6-0 record. They might have taken the scenic route to get here, but they certainly accomplished the goal Smith laid out at the start of the month.
“They’re grinding,” Smith said after Tuesday’s game. “And the guys are just having fun. We’re not looking at the standings. We’re just having fun.”
These past four games have seen an offensive explosion for an Ottawa team that struggled to score even-strength goals. The Senators have scored 11 goals at five-on-five over this four-game winning streak. Contrast that with the fact Ottawa was outscored 30-12 at five-on-five in its first 11 games and you can clearly see the main catalyst for this surge.
During their two-day break before the Islanders game last week, the Senators tried to come up with alternate schemes to generate even-strength offence. There was an extended dry-erase board session featuring Smith, DeBrincat and Giroux on Monday. The lines were altered, to try to create three balanced scoring lines instead of two top-heavy units.
The result, Chabot said, is a team that feels a lot more comfortable in the offensive zone.
“We hold on to the puck. We create more room for each other. We find the second wave coming up the ice,” Chabot said. “That gives us more O-zone time every night. Any time you’re in the O-zone, you don’t have to defend as much.”
Of course, Ridly Greig deserves some credit for helping spark Ottawa’s recent winning streak. The Senators were hoping the return of Josh Norris from injury would allow them to create the three balanced forward lines. Alas, Norris’ return only lasted three games.
Insert Greig, who has jumped in between Giroux and DeBrincat to help generate some instant chemistry. It also allows the Senators to have a dangerous third line featuring Shane Pinto and Drake Batherson.
“The injury to Norris probably made us a little closer,” Smith said. “Bringing up Ridly, we weren’t sure if he was ready, he’s obviously made a huge difference for us.”
Curiously, the Senators announced after Tuesday’s game that Greig was being demoted back to the AHL in Belleville, along with Mark Kastelic and Mads Sogaard. Kastelic’s demotion was likely rooted in the fact the centreman has struggled with his confidence lately.
After Tuesday’s game, Smith deferred to general manager Pierre Dorion about the decision on Greig, but the head coach did say “his long-term development is of the most importance to us.”
Belleville has three games on the schedule before Ottawa plays its next game Feb. 11. But sending Greig down doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll suit up for any of those AHL contests. In all likelihood, the Senators want to balance a bit of a tightrope with Greig during their bye week. They want him to stay motivated and hungry, but they don’t want to risk his being hurt in an AHL game when he’s become a valuable player at the NHL level.
The likely course of action will see the Senators simply have Greig skate and work out with the Belleville team over the next week to stay sharp but stay out of game action. And when Ottawa returns to full practices next week ahead of its date with the Oilers, Greig can be recalled to join the NHL squad.
When the Senators do suit up for their next game against Edmonton, they should still have the faint prospect of staying in the playoff race — something that felt inconceivable seven days ago. At the very least, this four-game winning streak may have resuscitated the idea that meaningful games in March are a possibility.
Of course, the roller-coaster path continues for Ottawa. Just when it’s finding its stride and riding a season-high four-game winning streak, its league-mandated bye week appears on the schedule.
“Right now, we’re firing on all cylinders where you can almost say you don’t want the break to happen,” Tkachuk said. “But I think it will be good for us to regroup to kind of heal those bumps and bruises.”
Though the captain stopped well short of promising a playoff race on the other side of this bye week, he did suggest this recent winning streak has kept their season alive — even if it’s still hanging by a thread.
“We’ve put ourselves in a better position than what could have happened if we just packed it in,” Tkachuk said.
“I think it’s a lot better going into the break with a good mindset that we have and the way we’ve been playing,” DeBrincat added. “Losing four games in a row would be tough.
Fresh off his two-goal performance Tuesday at the Bell Centre, Stützle said he’s headed for a warm, tropical destination in the days ahead to recharge and relax.
And with a big smile, he said, “Everybody can go into the break positive and happy.”
(Photo of Tim Stützle: Eric Bolte / USA Today)