Islanders double down on Senators

The pre-season that felt like it would never end finally did so on a losing note Sunday night, with both halves of a split Ottawa Senators squad dropping decisions to the New York Islanders.

Islanders double down on Senators
New York Islanders' Riley Wetmore blasts a first period goal past Ottawa Senators' Craig Anderson during pre-season NHL hockey action in Ottawa on Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The pre-season that felt like it would never end finally did so on a losing note Sunday night, with both halves of a split Ottawa Senators squad dropping decisions to the New York Islanders.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau was the lone Ottawa goal-scorer in a 4-1 loss at Canadian Tire Centre that featured a shaky 60-minute, 19-save performance from No. 1 netminder Craig Anderson.

And in Barrie, Ont., tallies by Matt Puempel and Cory Conacher weren’t enough as the John Tavares-led Isles pumped five past Ottawa backup Robin Lehner.

With eight exhibition contests and more than two weeks of training camp in the books, all that’s left for coach Paul MacLean and general manager Bryan Murray to do is chop up Ottawa’s halves and make the team whole one last time.

They have until noon Monday to get their final roster submitted to the NHL ahead of the league’s first real games on Tuesday, though Senators fans will have to wait a little bit longer to get a look at the final product — Ottawa kicks off its schedule Friday night in Buffalo.

The deliberations shouldn’t take long.

There was only one glaring hole when training camp began — the right wing on the second line – and Cory Conacher snapped that spot up last week. The Senators will likely carry two extra forwards in the early going, with one slot reserved for tough guy Matt Kassian. Expect to see him in the lineup next Saturday at Toronto.

Diminutive centre Stephane Da Costa — who again found himself between wingers Bobby Ryan and Milan Michalek on the top line Sunday — should land the other after a stunning bounce-back performance in camp. Da Costa wasn’t even a sure bet to be retained by the organization in the summer, but worked hard during the off-season and forced his way back into the conversation.

Eric Gryba, who missed most of training camp with a nagging leg injury, played his first pre-season game Sunday as part of the Canadian Tire Centre group. He’ll be the seventh defenceman.

Fortunately, injury is something the Senators appeared to avoid in their last two pre-season contests.

It wasn’t a banner night for either goaltender, but then, they were holding fort behind squads playing like the games didn’t matter.

The lone bright spot for the Senators’ Ottawa group was a nice one-timed blast from the slot by Pageau to make it 4-1 late in the second period.

At the other end, the Islanders beat Anderson every which way.

He was left sprawling after Isles winger Kirill Kabanov undressed Ottawa defenceman Michael Sdao, skated around the net and threw a pass out front to a waiting for Riley Wetmore. Easy tap-in, 1-0.

It was mostly downhill from there.

Less than a minute later, Ryan Strome scored from the same spot on a one-timer set up by Anders Lee, who won a puck battle with Mika Zibanejad behind the net.

Ryan Pulock, with a screened power play point shot, and Brock Nelson, with a wrister on a partial break, put the game out of reach with goals in the first seven minutes of the second.

On the plus side, Anderson picked up an assist on Pageau’s goal.

Evgeni Nabokov picked up the win (and an assist of his own) for New York with two periods of light work, making way for Ken Reitter in the third. Reitter’s best save came on a Milan Michalek breakaway to keep it at 4-1 halfway through the frame.

With the losses, the Senators finished the pre-season with a 4-4 record.

Conacher’s power play goal in Barrie gave him four overall to lead all Senators, and he also wound up tied for the scoring lead with Erik Karlsson (five points).

The Barrie game brought an official end to what was supposed to be one of the more intense camp battles, one that ultimately fizzled when one player grabbed the reins early and the others quickly faded away.

Conacher — who challenged for rookie of the year honours last season before fading toward the end — was understandably excited to start the season to the right of centre Kyle Turris and left winger Clarke MacArthur on Line 2. Both players assisted on his goal Sunday.

Yet he remains acutely aware that NHL success can be fleeting.

“I’m pretty happy (but) there’s always room for improvement,” he said prior to leaving for Barrie Sunday. “Every day you can get a little better and it’s important, to be in this league, to be consistent … because there’s guys, there’s prospects in the system that can take your spot on any day.”

Speedy Mike Hoffman, one of the early contenders, cleared waivers Sunday en route to AHL Binghamton. Despite notching an assist on the Puempel goal, Mark Stone is likely headed there too.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t appear the groin strain that kept Jason Spezza out of the lineup last week will cause him to miss any regular season time.

After wheeling around the morning skate with the Barrie group, he said he felt fine.

“Barring something changing, we never really thought there would be a doubt about starting the season,” he said. “That’s kind of why we’ve been so cautious the last few days, just to make sure that was never in jeopardy.”

Now all that stands in the way of Game 1 is one last workweek of practice, and players will no doubt be itching to go by the end.

Even Jared Cowen, who missed the first six days of camp due to a contract impasse, was anxious to play for real. Pre-season was fun and all, he said, but he was looking forward to getting some reps in with the core group of players.

“This is the start of the season, so it’s a little more exciting, it’s full of possibilities and nobody knows what’s going to happen,” he said.

“It’s time to get things rolling, because it’s been a long summer.”

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