TORONTO — All training camp long, centre Jim O’Brien has been the forgotten centre for the Ottawa Senators.
The general assumption is that O’Brien will be the odd man out in the middle when cut down day comes, the victim of being behind a group that includes Jason Spezza, Kyle Turris, Mika Zibanejad, Zack Smith and Jean-Gabriel Pageau. As a result, O’Brien could be available off waivers next week.
Clearly though, O’Brien isn’t going away quietly.
O’Brien was in the right place at the right time Tuesday during the Senators’ 3-2 win at the Air Canada Centre. He broke a 1-1 tie when Corey Cowick’s pass deflected off his skate past Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer.
Colin Greening padded the lead to 3-1 only 1:55 later, also taking advantage of a lucky bounce off a Leafs skate.
Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf narrowed the gap to 3-2, beating Senators goaltender Robin Lehner on a pretty 2-on-1 break.
The Senators were the better team most of the night, with Reimer routinely stopping breakaways and odd man rushes in the opening two periods to keep the Maple Leafs in the game.
Perhaps the Maple Leafs were distracted, still dealing with the repercussions of Sunday’s brawl against the Buffalo Sabres.
Oddly enough, David Clarkson, who received an automatic 10-game suspension from the regular season for jumping off the Maple Leafs bench to join the fun, is still allowed to play in the pre-season and he was in Toronto’s lineup Tuesday. Phil Kessel, who was suspended for the rest of the preseason schedule Tuesday for his stick-swinging antics, is eligible to return for the regular season.
The Maple Leafs didn’t look particular sharp. Outside of Senators killer Reimer, that is. Reimer, who has an all-time regular season record of 8-1-1 and three shutouts against the Senators, clearly isn’t going to give away his starting job to newcomer Jonathan Bernier without a fight.
He stoned Cowick and Stephane Da Costa on breakaways, robbed Andre Petersson on a 2-on-1 break by sliding across the crease and made outstanding pad stops off Da Costa and Mark Stone.
Through two periods, the only one shot that got by him was a Zack Smith shot between his legs on a partial breakaway.
The Maple Leafs opened the scoring early in the second, when James Van Riemsdyk displayed his terrific hands, faking out rookie Senators defenceman Michael Sdao and roofing a shot over Lehner.
Lehner had his moments, too, including a trapper save off Clarkson with only 10 seconds left in the middle period. He was also sharp in the final minutes of the game as the Maple Leafs pressed to tie the game.
The other bright spots for the Senators included the defence pairing of Jared Cowen and Patrick Wiercioch, who allowed little in front of Lehner.
Cowen was playing his first game since signing his four-year, $12.4 million contract and Wiercioch looked comfortable and composed, threading the needle to start several breakouts. His pass sent Cowick in all alone on Reimer.
While Cowen and Wiercioch are aiming to establish themselves as a top four tandem, the pairing of Mark Borowiecki and Cody Ceci had an up and down night.
Those two, who will likely make up the top tandem with Binghamton of the AHL to start the season, were bottled up at times inside their own zone. Ceci did, however, showcase his ability to jump into the rush. Borowiecki picked up an assist on Smith’s goal and Ceci registered an assist on Greening’s goal.
DaCosta and Petersson, longshots to make the Senators roster, showcased plenty of chemistry playing together, but they didn’t have an answer for beating Reimer.
The Senators are back in action Wednesday, playing the Montreal Canadiens at the Canadian Tire Centre in the first of a home-and-away series. The Senators travel to Montreal Thursday.