Sens have room to improve as schedule turns nasty

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Ottawa Senators Match Game.

Sens have room to improve as schedule turns nasty
Kyle Turris plays without his helmet while Devan Dubnyk (L) and Andrew Ference look on in the 1st period as the Ottawa Senators take on the Edmonton Oilers in NHL action at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa. (Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen)

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Ottawa Senators Match Game.

The rules are simple: Pair the following quotes from head coach Paul MacLean with the proper game outcomes.

Quote 1: “We gave up 42 shots at home. I don’t think we handled momentum swings very well.”

Quote 2: “I thought it was a solid 60 minutes by our team, probably the best full game that we’ve played to this point this season.”

Now, which one refers to a 5-2, apparent blowout victory over a future Hall of Fame goaltender, and which came after a 3-1 loss to the National Hockey League’s 26th-ranked team, one that has but two wins in nine tries?

Yes, given the Senators had just fallen to the lowly Edmonton Oilers Saturday afternoon at the Canadian Tire Centre, it might have seemed a bit counter-intuitive to hear MacLean praising his charges. But he wasn’t far off.

While Senators’ 5-2 win over Martin Brodeur and the Devils last Thursday came despite a sloppy effort that saw them trail 30-17 on the shot clock, they dominated play for long stretches against the Oilers.

Final shot count Saturday: 36-20 for the home team.

So yes, the Senators did play well. But they probably aren’t getting carried away either.

They’re aware their best effort against a bottom feeder like Edmonton won’t be near good enough when they face some of the league’s biggest fish later this week. They play in Detroit Wednesday against former captain Daniel Alfredsson, then return home to take on the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks Friday and Sunday.

The biggest outstanding issue? The Senators are still spending way, way too much time in the penalty box.

They took another seven minors against the Oilers, including two on the same play at opposite ends of the ice that resulted in a full two-minute, 5-on-3 advantage for the visitors.

Had they not been facing an Edmonton power play that was about as in sync as a beginners line dancing class, things could have been much worse. The drop-passing, over-deking Oilers managed one shot on that PP and just four over the course of six man advantage opportunities.

“Yeah,” MacLean said when asked if he was still concerned about the number of penalties being called against his team. “Again, turnovers end up putting us in bad spots and we’re not moving our feet to play defence, so those are still a bit of a concern.

“But the positive we take out of it is we played a full game, but we just need to play better.”

At the other end, their own power play was 0-for-5, and they admitted their net presence in the offensive zone wasn’t where it needed to be.

They had their chances early against Oilers starter Devan Dubnyk, who entered the game with the worst stats among all NHL goaltenders (0-4-1, 4.91 goals-against average and .854 save percentage).

Dubnyk lived up to his reputation in the opening minutes, allowing the first shot of the game — a should-have-been harmless slider toward the five-hole — to trickle through his legs and just wide of the net. Another early point shot hit and froze him, rainbowing over the net as he searched in vain for the puck.

After that, Dubnyk calmed down, and the window of opportunity closed.

“We were around the net, doing good things, and we just couldn’t bury one,” said captain Jason Spezza. “They get a couple quick ones and then Dubnyk settles down and plays a heck of a game.”

Robin Lehner’s experience was similar to Dubnyk’s, in that he didn’t feel comfortable early but stabilized as the minutes wore on. The difference was the Oilers cashed when they had a chance, scoring twice on the Ottawa goalie in the first 10:29 before being shut down the rest of the way. Their third goal, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ second of the contest, was into an empty net.

“We did a lot of good things, we got a lot of pucks at (Dubnyk) and did a lot of things better than we’ve been doing them in previous games and (Saturday) we don’t get rewarded,” Spezza said. “So, you know, a little bit of irony for us.”

Grinding winger Chris Neil suggested the Senators could improve their luck by getting in close and creating more havoc — a credible statement given his own performance.

He scored Ottawa’s lone goal on a jam play at the side of the net, knocking the puck up and over Dubnyk to pull the Senators to 2-1 with less than six minutes remaining in the game.

“Coming from that western swing (earlier this month), playing San Jose and Anaheim and guys like that, they get second and third chances at the net, and that’s something we’ve got to, as a team, as a whole, get better at,” he said.

JGP TAKES A SEAT

It’ll be interesting to see how MacLean tinkers with his lineup as a challenging week rolls on. Jean-Gabriel Pageau sat out his first game of the season as a healthy scratch against the Oilers, making way for Binghamton call-up Derek Grant. Grant wound up playing just 5:57, but he won 57 per cent of his faceoffs, an area Pageau has struggled badly with this season.

FUTURE CHART TOPPER

If things keep going the way they did Saturday, defenceman Erik Karlsson will be the NHL’s busiest player by the end of the season. He played more than half the game (30:37) to pull a little closer to current ice time leaders Ryan Suter of Minnesota and Dennis Wideman of Calgary. Karlsson is averaging 27:46 per game so far

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