Take nothing away from centre Kyle Turris’s debut with the Ottawa Senators Tuesday, but the return of veteran defencemen Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba from injuries played a bigger role in the 4-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
It’s not often that the Senators, who have allowed a league-high 117 goals against, can be praised for its defensive poise, but that is what they delivered in allowing goaltender Craig Anderson to enjoy one of his easiest nights of the season.
The 23 shots against were the fewest in 17 games, dating back to Nov.11. The single goal against was the least since a 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Nov. 15. More importantly, the Senators allowed only a handful of odd man rushes and rebounds were usually quickly cleared from around the net. The sound defensive play was in stark contrast to the defensive breakdowns which had been the norm through the first 33 games of the year.
After the game, Anderson said it was no coincidence that the game featured the return of both Kuba, who played 23:00, and Gonchar, who played 20:00. Kuba had missed the previous nine games with a shoulder injury and Gonchar was absent from the previous four with an upper body injury.
“It was probably one of the better games (defensively),” Gonchar said following practice Wednesday, in preparation for Thursday’s visit by the Florida Panthers to Scotiabank Place. “(Anderson) made the key saves when we needed him to, but I don’t think we gave up too many 2 on 1′s or 3 on 2′s. It’s about not panicking, maybe having a little different mindset, always thinking defence first. Sometimes, when you’re younger, you have a tendency to jump in too much or try to create things out of nothing. When you gain experience, you pick your spots more.”
While Erik Karlsson will probably always walk that fine line — “Erik is Erik,” says Gonchar — David Rundblad, the 21-year-old rookie defenceman who was traded for Turris last Saturday, was unable to find that happy balance between offence and defence. He was repeatedly caught in between, resulting in the odd man breaks and the ugly minus 11 plus/minus figure beside his name.
With Matt Carkner now back for the past six games following his knee injury, Tuesday marked the first night that the Senators had a completely healthy group of defencemen this season. Brian Lee was the healthy scratch.
“We had two pretty good guys come back and help us out,” said Carkner. “Our focus as a team is to play better defence and that’s from the goalie out. As a team, we’ve got to shore up our (defensive) zone and eliminate odd man rushes. There are a lot of parts that have to fall into place, but we’ve been been preaching the same kind of thing and it’s starting to catch on.”
While Tuesday’s victory was far from the most entertaining game of the season, coach Paul MacLean was hardly complaining because of the variety of players who chipped in.
MacLean figures the Senators are going to need a similar effort Thursday against Florida, one of the league’s biggest surprises.
Florida leads the Southeast Division and ranks third overall in the Eastern Conference as new coach Kevin Dineen, a former Senator, has been able to shape an impressive team out of a group of veterans who many thought were overpaid.
“If you’re a first placed team, you’re doing something right and we have to pay attention to what they’re doing,” said MacLean. “They’ve had an influx of some really good players. (Brian) Campbell can transport the puck. (Kris) Versteeg has great skill. (Tomas) Kopecky has great experience. There’s the growth of (Jason) Garrison. All of a sudden, he can shoot the puck harder than anyone in the league.”