The Canadiens will try to pull themselves to .500 on Friday when they travel to play the Senators. While the Habs have not played since last Saturday’s win over the Bruins, the Sens have been idle since Tuesday’s 5-3 loss to the Bruins.
Ottawa has been an exciting team this season, one of the bigger surprises in the NHL, having reeled off a six-game winning streak that ended with the loss to Boston. They’re 7-6-0, currently tied for fifth in the East with 14 points, four points ahead of the Habs.
Part of the excitement is that they score a lot of goals, 42 going into Friday’s game, the third most in the league. But they also give up a lot. Their 50 goals allowed are worst in the NHL.
They’ve also made a habit of pulling off third period comebacks — they lead the NHL with 20 third period goals — and feel they’re never out of a game. Their most dramatic comeback so far was a 5-4 shootout win on the road against the Rangers last Saturday in which they trailed 4-1 midway through the third period. So opponents must play a full 60 minutes against them.
It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Sens, with lots of growing pains for their young roster. But things have looked anything but strained in the nation’s capital. They’re getting unexpected performances from their first-year players.
Up front, rookie left wing Colin Greening has earned a spot on the top line, and his four goals and four assists in October got him a nomination for Rookie of the Month. Another rookie, Stephane Da Costa, has earned the second line centre spot and had a goal and assist against the Bruins on Tuesday, his best outing yet. On the blue line, David Runblad and Jared Cowen are both playing over 16 minutes a night on the second and third pairing respectively.
But the biggest performances have been by some notable veterans, starting with Greening’s linemates: Jason Spezza, whose 15 points tie him for fifth in league scoring, and Milan Michalek, who is finally healthy for the first time as a Senator and not far behind Spezza with 13 points. Spezza has also taken more faceoffs than any player in the NHL, 301, and won the most, 166. So expect to see Number 19 take all the critical draws for Ottawa.
Despite their offensive numbers, however, they are all minus players on the season. Spezza and Michalek are each minus-4, Greening is minus-7.
Veteran defenceman Sergei Gonchar, who proved to be a huge disappointment last year in his first Sens campaign, has bounced back. He has nine assists thus far and is once again effective on the power play, where six of his assists have been registered.
But even more effective has been a young veteran who’s emerging as a star defenceman in the NHL. Twenty-one year old Erik Karlsson, now in his third season, is starting to fulfill his promise as a premiere puck mover. His 13 points are tied for the lead among all blueliners and his 12 assists lead all NHL skaters. Seven of those assists have come with the man advantage, tied for second in the NHL. His 36 shots at opposing goaltenders ranks second in the league among defencemen, so look for him to fire the puck at every opportunity. His one downside is that he’s still learning the defensive end of the game and is small for a top pair guy at 6-foot, 180 pounds.
Karlsson has been paired with Filip Kuba, a bigger body who has never played as sound defensively as he has in his new role on the first tandem. He trails only Karlsson in ice time for Ottawa and leads them in blocked shots. The pair is prone to turnovers, however.
Chris Neil remains a physical force up front. His 39 hits rank fifth in the league.
With all their excellent puck movement. the Senators biggest weapon is their power play. They are clicking at a league-best 28.9 rate and their 13 man advantage goals also lead the NHL. Michalek’s four power play goals are tied for best in the league.
The Sens penalty kill is another story, ranking 27th in the league, at 73.4 percent. They’ve surrendered 17 goals when shorthanded, worst in the NHL.
Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson will miss the game, suffering from a concussion he received last weekend against the Rangers. But former Canadiens goalie Alex Auld (pictured), who was out with an undisclosed injury, is expected to return on Friday to back up starter Craig Anderson.
Anderson’s save percentage is not good, .880. Nor is his goals against average, 3.80. But he’s faced the second most shots in the league thus far and there are obviously some defensive flaws in the team. He remains second among NHL goalies with six victories.
That aside, Paul MacLean — in his first head coaching gig — has done a fine job of handling this mix of youth and veterans, working on correcting their shortcomings, managing the expectations for a rebuilding club that has missed the playoffs three of the past four seasons, and creating a good atmosphere around the dressing room and on the ice, which hasn’t always been the case with the Senators. The players have been showing their appreciation with the results.
Here’s how the Senators could line up on Friday against the Canadiens:
Colin Greening, Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek
Nick Foligno, Stephane Da Costa, Bobby Butler
Erik Condra, Zack Smith, Chris Neil
Zenon Konopka, Jesse Winchester, Nikita Filatov
Erik Karlsson, Filip Kuba
David Rundblad, Chris Phillips
Sergei Gonchar, Jared Cowen