The Ottawa Senators opened their home season on Saturday against the New York Rangers, and were humbled, 4-1, much as they were in Wednesday’s 5-3 loss in Toronto to the Maple Leafs.
Once again, Ottawa’s rebuilding team took it on the chin, this time giving up three goals on special teams while getting dominated in the faceoff circle (33 per cent), giving up multiple grade-A chances on goaltender Craig Anderson.
Head coach D. J. Smith was especially disappointed by the lack of energy in a team trying to establish something on home ice, even in a rebuilding year.
“We didn’t come out and hit them,” Smith said. “Our team has got to forecheck and be aggressive. I didn’t think we were that. We swung off hits, and we didn’t put their D in any kind of trouble.
“They were hard on us … and we didn’t make it hard enough.
“We’re going to have to compete harder, especially in our building. It’s just not acceptable to come out here and go through the motions — some guys.”
Changes to the roster will be made, Smith implied, based on performance.
The Rangers were two-for-three on the power play and added a short-handed goal by Mika Zibanejad. Ottawa was 0-5 with the extra man.
“Our special teams certainly have to get better,” said Smith. “Their big dogs certainly took it to us.”
Those big dogs include Zibanejad, who had three goals and a helper for the Rangers. Artemi Panarin had a goal and two assists and Pavel Buchnevich had three assists.
The Senators had their chances, including a Thomas Chabot goal-post late. But they were schooled when it counted. Ottawa outshot New York 32-30.
“We’re making little mistakes in the O-zone, on where guys should be and where we should not be,” Chabot said of the power-play struggles. “It’s a big part of my game, I take pride in the power play and it’s disappointing right now we’re not doing it the right way. We’re going to have to take a hard look at it.”
A crowd of 15,135 took in a pretty entertaining game. The hope is that many of them return when there is less of an occasion than the home opener.
The Senators also need some of the young players they have drafted recently, and will draft next summer, to blossom into stars.
Unfortunately, one of their previous draft picks, Zibanejad, did a number on them in this return engagement with the Rangers. Zibanejad, who was Ottawa’s sixth-overall pick in 2011, was dealt to the Rangers in 2016 and emerged as a team leader and 30-goal scorer last season.
He already has four this season, after scoring a hat-trick against his former teammates.
“Everybody gets it at different stages of their career,” Anderson said of Zibanejad. “When he was drafted here, we expected a lot of him, from an early stage, and he wasn’t ready for that.
“Sometimes a change of scenery is what it takes to wake a player up. It woke me up, woke a few other guys up. Maybe he’s changed his off-ice training, who knows what he’s changed. But he’s become a truly elite player and showing the reason we drafted him so high.”
This game could be summed up in three words: Too Much Mika.
Zibanejad joined a short list — a hat trick of former Senators — who have scored three times in a game against Ottawa. Antoine Vermette and Joe Corvo are the others. Zibanejad also owed the faceoff dot, going a blistering 18-4.
The Kids are… playing at the Bay of Quinte
As part of the opening night hullabaloo, local musicians Elijah Woods and Jamie Fine performed an original song designed to be anthem for this Senators season: The Kids Are Alright.
Fans would settle for a year that’s just Fine, and hope the franchise is one day out of the Woods, but the song title might be a better fit for Ottawa’s AHL franchise.
The Kids are in Belleville actually works, considering players like Logan Brown, Alex Lajoie, Aex Formenton, Vitaly Abramov, Jonathan Davidsson, Josh Norris, Filip Gustavsson and Kelly Parker are all between 20-22 and playing for the B-Sens.
While the senior Sens do have Erik Brannstrom, Drake Batherson, Colin White and Brady Tkachuk, they are not a young team by NHL standards, nor really any younger than last year.
As a roster, the Senators average age on the opening night roster in Toronto was 26.7 years of age. With veteran Mikkel Boedker switched in for Filip Chlapik, the age increased to 27.05 for the home opener. At last year’s Opening Night, the Senators collective age was 26.9.
We understand the sentiment. As an organization, the Senators are skewing younger in this rebuild, but the bulk of the prospects remain at the AHL level for now.
Takes a family to raise an NHL player
Watching the morning skate intently was Niklas Brannstrom, father of Senators rookie Erik Brannstrom.
The elder Brannstrom played 17 seasons in Europe and is currently a coach in the Swedish Hockey League. He had no bigger thrill in his career than watching for the first time as his son played an NHL game. Brannstrom made his NHL debut in Toronto Wednesday and was in the lineup for Ottawa’s home opener.
Senators head coach D. J. Smith appreciated the significance.
“It’s such a proud moment,” Smith said. “You work your whole life to get the best league in the world and here he is. And for his dad to be able to watch him go out there … and it’s not just the kid putting in the time.
“Everyone knows for these kids to make the NHL it’s a sacrifice the parents make, not only financially but the amount of time they put in for these kids and now these tournaments, summer tournaments, it’s a full family commitment to get somebody to the NHL I would say today.”
The Sabourin family was also well-represented as Scott Sabourin of Orleans, Ont., made his home ice debut. Sabourin told Sportsnet.ca that he would have a large contingent of family and friends scattered throughout the CTC.
Sabourin, 27, was the surprise of camp, making the team on a pro tryout.
Smith said he appreciated the opportunity seized by Sabourin after seven years in the minors, mostly in the AHL.
“I’m sure it crossed his mind at some point, he’s 27 and was without a contract in August,” Smith said. “And here is playing. I’m sure his family gave up a ton for him as well. It’s good to see. Now, the hard part is staying here.”
Phillips to have his No. 4 retired
Dropping the ceremonial faceoff between two of his former teammates, Mark Borowiecki and Zibanejad was Chris Phillips, who has a big night coming up in the New Year. The team announced that Phillips will have his No. 4 retired on Feb. 18, joining Daniel Alfredsson (11) and Frank Finnigan (8), whose numbers are also in the rafters.
Phillips, Ottawa’s first-overall draft pick in 1996, was part of the Senators’ initial trip to a Stanley Cup playoff the very next spring.
Phillips played 1,179 games for the Senators — the most in team history — between 1997-2015, scoring 71 goals and adding 217 assists. He is 24th on the all-time list of NHL games played for a single team. Beyond the numbers, Phillips was a fixture on the Ottawa blue line, developing into a shutdown defenceman who helped lead the Senators through their best seasons in franchise history, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007.
“I’m very excited, honoured,” Phillips said during the first intermission. “When I got the phone call from the GM they were going to retire my jersey, I’d be lying if I said it was something I wasn’t hoping for. But I wasn’t expecting it. To get that phone call was a special moment.”
Though word was all over town about about the jersey retirement, Phillips managed to keep the news from his mother, Carol, who only learned of it when she watched the video screen during the pre-game announcement.
The last image on the screen: a framed No. 4.
“To be there among the best that ever played for this team, and be in the same sentence (as Alfredsson), feels very special,” Phillips said.
Earlier this year, Phillips was inducted into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame. He and his wife, Erin, and their family are mainstays in the community, and are involved in numerous charities.