MONTREAL _ The clock is ticking on the Ottawa Senators and decision day is coming.
In exactly one week, the Senators will wake up in Buffalo to prepare to open the season Oct. 13th against the Sabres at the KeyBank Center and there’s plenty of fine-tuning to do with two games left on the exhibition schedule.
Coming off a 5-4 victory over the Montreal Canadiens Tuesday night at the Bell Centre, the club didn’t skate Wednesday. Instead, they boarded a flight to Gander and Thursday night the Senators will face the Habs again in Game 3 of the series to close out the preseason.
Saturday night the two teams will head to Moncton in the second of two appearances in Kraft Hockeyville and the decisions will be made. All 30 players in camp made the trip to the East Coast but by the time they arrive late Saturday decisions will have to be made.
General manager Pierre Dorion, assistant GM’s Trent Mann and Ryan Bowness along with coach D.J. Smith and the rest of the hockey operations staff want to see this club firing on all cylinders by the time the season opens.
Ahead 4-2 in the third period against the Habs, the last five minutes in Montreal were adventurous and that’s putting it mildly. Cole Caufield puled the Habs within a goal with 4:57 left, captain Brady Tkachuk restored the two-goal lead and then Arrber Xhekaj made it interesting again.
Smith said when you’ve got a team down by two goals that late in the game you’ve got to close it out without incident.
This team spends a lot of time working on its structure and at that time of the game Smith wants this group to stick with it to have success. His approach has been consistent since he arrived here: Stay aggressive, track to create chances and win the battles for loose pucks.
You can’t over-react to preseason performances either.
Tkachuk scored what turned out to be the winner, but he wasn’t at his best along with linemates Josh Norris and Drake Batherson. Given what we’ve seen from them in the past, they can be counted on when the season begins.
It’s the same for alternate captain Thomas Chabot and his defensive partner Artem Zub. They haven’t been great in the club’s last two exhibition games but they’ll turn it up a notch.
“Wins and losses aren’t counted right now so you’ve got to use these to your advantage to be ready when the season starts,” Smith said. “(Tuesday) was the first night. You’re rolling the lines over and guys haven’t played with each other.
“I just thought we were a little passive, especially in the third period, We’re a team that has to stay on you and forecheck and do all those things, but, in saying that, we found a way to win. You have to keep your foot on the gas, keep grinding and trying to score without giving up anything.”
If you look at the lineup Tuesday, it’s about as close to opening night as you may get in an exhibition game. The club dressed Scott Sabourin in Austin Watson’s place on the fourth-line and the Senators still have a decision or two to make before opening night.
The first involves centre Mark Kastelic. He has done everything he can to try to win a job with the Senators and he didn’t hurt his standing by dropping the gloves with Xhekaj. That was payback fro him knocking two Ottawa players out of the rookie tourney in Buffalo in one game.
He’s in a battle with Dylan Gambrell and veteran Derick Brassard for the in the middle on the fourth line, but Kastelic is refusing to go down to the club’s AHL affiliate in Belleville without a fight.
“He’s so big, he’s so strong and he’s just going to continue to get better,” Smith said.
Another decision looming is on the back end. Blueliner Erik Brannstrom and veteran Nikita Zaitsev are pushing for the job in the third pairing beside Nick Holden. The edge belongs to Brannstrom right now and it’s hard to believe that will change.
A player that isn’t going anywhere is 20-year-old No. 5 overall pick Jake Sanderson. He played 19 minutes and 35 seconds against the Habs, was plus-1 and had an assist. He’s getting good chemistry with veteran Travis Hamonic and they’re rounding into form.
“He’s really good at communicating with me,” Sanderson said. “He’s helping me get out of my shell and just using my voice a little bit more on the ice. That makes all the difference just knowing where we are and feeding off that.”
As for the power play, the arrival of Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux in the off-season has helped to make the man-advantage look special. The Senators have two units that are reliable and that duo has good chemistry with centre Shane Pinto.
That will also work itself out by the time the season begins and the good news is Smith will have plenty of options.