OTTAWA — When the Ottawa Senators line up for their home opener at Scotiabank Place on Monday night, they’ll be facing an opponent that knows what to expect.
After sneaking up on teams last season, the word is out on this group.
Since arriving in Ottawa prior to the start of last season, coach Paul MacLean has preached a system that relies on all five skaters being aggressive and active in both the defensive and offensive zones, regardless of their own positions.
It’s a strategy that’s been most effective on the latter patch of ice, where much of the scoring runs through defending Norris Trophy-winner Erik Karlsson. In fact, no team got more points from its defencemen last season than the Senators.
Once again, the group is off to a fast start.
Prior to Ottawa’s season debut Saturday, Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel talked about what his team needed to do to contain the Senators’ attack: “I think what you’re going to see is fairly similar stuff — they activate the defence quite a bit.”
Yet despite the awareness, said defence proceeded to light Noel’s team up for a combined six points in a 4-1 win. In a performance Karlsson dubbed “not very good,” he still managed a goal and two assists to lead the way.
“The puck wasn’t really my best friend (Saturday), obviously — that’s the way it is sometimes, and obviously I need to work on a few things to get the emotion back and just the flow in the game.”
Imagine the possibilities once he and the puck start getting along again.
Working in his favour is a promising start with new defence partner Marc Méthot, who also picked up an assist in their first game together (Sergei Gonchar and Patrick Wiercioch notched helpers as well).
“It felt (good). I think he played great,” Karlsson said. “He’s a good skater and he understands the game well and (I) shouldn’t see any issues playing with him going forward here.”
Méthot felt he same way.
“It was a kind of a back-and-forth first period, at least the first couple of shifts, but I thought we played really well,” he said. “We didn’t really give up any big opportunities defensively, and Erik was up doing his thing in the offensive zone, so that’s kind of what we want.”
And who knows, maybe some of Karlsson’s creativity might rub off. Méthot’s career high for points is 17, a total he seems destined to surpass if this pairing holds.
“I’ll take points where I can get them,” he laughed. “I think the key, at least to me right now, is just to watch Karl when he’s jumping up in the play and get back for him. Points obviously aren’t my end of the job.”
Méthot’s role will be magnified Monday night, because the man who used to occupy it, Filip Kuba, will be standing at the opposite blue-line. The Senators balked at the unrestricted free agent’s asking price this summer, and as a result he now plies his trade as a member of the Florida Panthers.
“It’s going to be fun to see him play and I wish him all the best — we played together for such a long time and we really found good chemistry there,” Karlsson said.
“He’s a veteran player who’s been around for a long time and, even though he doesn’t talk the most, we became good friends and you know, I just picked up a lot of small things from him.”
As veteran defencemen like Kuba are replaced by youngsters such as Wiercioch and Mark Borowiecki, who’s still waiting to get his first game in, it appears Karlsson’s role is set to expand as well.
He played more than three minutes on the penalty kill against the Jets, something that would have been unimaginable a short while ago.
“Obviously, it’s a shortened season, there’s a lot of games, and I think we’re going to have to roll on as many people as we can,” Karlsson said. “I think (Saturday) we had a good PK and I obviously got some ice time there and it’s been a while.”
If Karlsson manages to show sustained competence in that role and, in turn, convinces the last vestiges of the hockey world that still view him as a one-trick defensive liability otherwise, the already stratospheric expectations in Ottawa for the 22-year-old are sure to climb even higher.
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