SAN JOSE — Thankfully for the Ottawa Senators, they’ve somehow managed to survive the bad math equation to start the season.
Before Thursday’s games, the Senators had been short-handed more per game than any other NHL team, forced to try and kill off 16 minor penalties in only three games.
They’ve done a lousy job of dealing with those short-handed situations, too, yielding four goals, a success rate of 75 per cent, which ranked 21st in the league. Those numbers also don’t include the game-winning overtime goal scored by Jeff Carter in Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles, a shot that hit the net just as a penalty to Clarke MacArthur expired, spoiling a spirited Senators comeback from a 3-0 first period deficit.
Yet for all that, the Senators have escaped with at least a point in every game so far — a 1-0-2 record which could easily be an awful lot worse.
No wonder Senators coach Paul MacLean says there’s plenty of work to be done in advance of Saturday’s game against the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks went into Thursday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks a perfect 3-0 to start the season, fresh from a 9-2 romp over the New York Rangers Tuesday, which included four goals from 19-year-old rookie Tomas Hertl.
While MacLean says registering four points in three road games to start the season is a decent beginning, he’s not getting carried away with what’s happened to date.
“Are we totally happy with how we’re doing it, how we’re playing and going about how it’s happening?” he asked, rhetorically. “No. But that’s what we have practice for. That’s why we have video and that’s why we have coaches — to get it sorted out and get ourselves to our identity as soon as we can. We’re not there yet. We’re there in a lot of ways, but the discipline part of it has to be there and if we’re more disciplined, then our penalty kill will be better.”
The Senators buried themselves early against Los Angeles, with a first period parade to the penalty box. The Kings enjoyed the rarest of opportunities, a pair of five-on-three chances in the first period. While they didn’t cash in with the two-man advantage, they maintained the pressure to score with a one-man advantage twice.
A big key to it all was the agitating presence of Kings captain Dustin Brown, who owned the first period. He scored twice and drew both Chris Neil and Zack Smith into taking retaliation penalties which ultimately resulted in goals.
Neil, who was sporting an ugly gash under his right eye and a cut which required “four or six stitches” over the bridge of his nose after taking a puck in the face during the game, paid tribute to Brown for doing his job.
“He’s an effective player for them,” he said. “That’s why he has been in L.A. so long and why he’s the captain of that team. He’s their heartbeat over there. For the way he plays, with that kind of player, you’ve got to be in his face, because obviously you know he’s going to do the same thing to you.”
Neil acknowledges he has to do a better job of determining what’s acceptable and what isn’t within each game.
“It’s a fine line,” he said. “Some nights they call it, some nights they don’t. For me, you’ve got to play your style of game. That’s being hard on the forecheck, being a big body out there. Obviously, with the way I play, penalties will come, but you just hope to play on (the right side of) the line where you aren’t going to get them.
“As the season gets longer, you adapt to it a little more,” he added. “The first couple of games guys are full of a lot of energy, ready to go, and maybe just a little anxious.”
Even though they’ve been a penalty-happy team so far, defenceman Patrick Wiercioch claims the Senators can’t afford to change what they consider to be their “identity” as a physical team.
“I feel like every game is officiated slightly differently and that’s just human judgment, so once we can get a feel for the game and how it’s going to be called, we can adjust how we’re playing,” he said. “The hard nosed penalties, we find a way to kill those off. It’s the other ones, the undisciplined ones, that we need to cut out.”
If they can get control of those, Wiercioch believes it will be a step toward establishing the kind of complete game the Senators have yet to show.
“We haven’t put a full 60 minutes together yet this year and it’s something we’re striving for, but we are proud of the team for coming back and at least getting a point on the road (against Los Angeles),” he said. “From what I’ve heard, San Jose is a really tough place to play and they’re going to come even harder at us through those first 10 minutes.”