OTTAWA — One by one, the Senators pioneers came back, 14 in all.
Neil Brady, who scored the first goal in a magnificent opening night upset of the Montreal Canadiens at the Civic Centre. Brad Marsh, who played with heart and conviction, bare head to the wind. Original captain Laurie Boschman, holding the group of castoffs and misfits together …
And the current Ottawa roster did its best to honour the franchise heroes with a determined push while occasionally, unwittingly, imitating the expansion 1992-93 Senators with rookie mistakes and giveaways. (The giveaway tracker had Ottawa on the wrong end of a 14-2 count after two periods.)
After an eventful season-opening two-game road trip to Detroit and Toronto, where two frantic third-period comebacks fell short, the rebuilding Senators took their act to the home crowd, not lacking for inspiration.
“Hopefully we can use the crowd to our advantage,” said captain Daniel Alfredsson, a few hours before the mere mention of his name in pre-game introductions threatened to break the arena noise meter.
If the 20th anniversary ceremonies came off a little flat, the Senators were not, firing off 10 quick shots on Minnesota Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom before the first period was half over.
No, they weren’t flat until they got close to the net, where Backstrom smothered pucks or steered rebounds just beyond Ottawa sticks.
Three first periods the new-look Senators have played and they still haven’t scored a goal. A good, old blue-collar goal by the third line (Nick Foligno scored) finally ended the club’s two-game second-period drought and brought the Senators back in the game, down 2-1 and driving hard.
“We’ve shown we can play great hockey in spurts,” Alfredsson said. “We’re not that far off.”
Giving up early goals by the bushel has been an issue, to say the least. And the streak for digging holes ran to three straight games as the usually meek and mild Minnesota Wild skated out to a 2-0 lead on a tip-in by Kyle Brodziak and then a power-play snipe by Devin Setoguchi, assisted by former Senator winger Dany Heatley, just to heighten the pain for the home crowd.
According to Senators goaltender Anderson, still trying to recapture his spring magic, opponents have had some good early bounces, not that he’s letting himself off the hook.
“There’s room for improvement,” Anderson said Tuesday, assessing his own play. “My job is to give this team a chance to win every night.”
Give it time, says No. 41.
Why not? We have all season.
“There’s a new coach, new players, there’s going to be some time to grow and play together,” Anderson said.
HEATLEY HEARS IT
The hockey season can be long and dry, so it would have been nice to have Heatley return on a day other than the Senators’ ceremonial home opener when there was so much else going on. Really, though, there isn’t that much to say about Heatley’s departure from the Senators, or the requisite boos here, except it will be interesting to see how No. 15 does with his latest team. Heatley’s 26 goals with San Jose last year represented his lowest output since 2003-04, and the early signs suggest Heatley is out to prove something.
Did you see that back check on John Tavares in the Islanders game on Monday? Rare footage, that.
Looking bright, cheery and fit, Heatley said he bears no ill will to Ottawa and is “honoured” to be wearing an “A” in Minny.
“It’s a real good team,” Heatley said. “Ever since I’ve got here, they’ve treated me well. It’s a great young coaching staff and they’re bringing a lot of excitement to this team.”
All Heatley wanted in Ottawa was a bigger role and a coach he didn’t detest. It’s early days and all, but Heatley has been embraced by Minnesota, and until further notice is relishing the leadership role on a young team, much as his old friend and linemate Jason Spezza is taking on here.
“Dany has been very supportive to the young guys,” said Mikko Koivu, Heatley’s latest centre man. “He has been unbelievable so far.”
New head coach Mike Yeo, no stranger to dealing with star personalities from his time in Pittsburgh, concurs with captain Koivu.
“He has been really impressive,” Yeo said. “We’re trying to change the identity, we’re trying to build a new culture here, and he has been a tremendous leader for us.”
Yeo said he had an open mind about acquiring the well-travelled sniper (Atlanta, Ottawa, San Jose … ), but has been more impressed with Heatley’s presence and character than he envisioned.
“Right from Day 1, he came into camp and he was in great shape,” Yeo said. “He’s very determined, very motivated right now. He wants to prove a lot of people wrong … and what impresses me the most is how committed he is to winning.”
It’s this simple: If Minnesota can improve on an 86-point season and Heatley produces, he will be as Wildly popular in Minnesota as he is detested in Ottawa.