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In tight Atlantic Division, Senators can’t afford to lose sight of top teams

“It gets late early out there,” Yogi Berra used to say, referencing the shadows in the Yankee Stadium outfield at World Series time.

We might soon be saying something similar about the NHL’s Atlantic Division playoff race. The division is so tight and competitive, no team can afford to lose sight of the top four teams. 

And yes, those are the Ottawa Senators currently sitting last in the Atlantic with eight points in eight games (4-4-0), albeit just two points behind the third-place jumble of teams at 10 points (Buffalo, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Montreal and Toronto).

Five of the teams ahead of Ottawa have played more games than the Senators’ eight and only the Boston Bruins have put any daylight between themselves and the pack, racing off to an 8-1-0 start and 16 points in the books.

So, yes the Senators are right in the mix, but their last-place setting is proof of how quickly the mighty can fall in the Atlantic. The Sens barely had time to pat themselves on the back for winning four of five games on home ice before a two-game skid has them looking at Tuesday’s meeting in Tampa Bay against the Lightning as a huge game.

The Senators can’t afford to lose three in a row, or their fourth road game out of four attempts. 

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More important than their place in the standings is their play on the ice. In last Thursday’s 4-2 loss to Minnesota at the CTC, the Sens got rag-dolled for most of the second period before responding in the third to make a game of it. 

The scene in Sunrise, Florida Saturday afternoon was much worse. Minus the steady presence of defenceman Artem Zub, Ottawa got outshot 58-26 overall and by 26-4 in the first period alone. It was as though the Sens got the memo that this was a night game and saw no reason to show up for a 4 p.m. start. 

“The first period was our worst period of the year for sure,” Ottawa coach D.J. Smith said, afterward. “Just weren’t ready when the game started. We battled back and we gave up a goal at the end of the second period, and then we give up a goal with three minutes to go. I mean, we kept battling but we’ve got to be better than that.”

Fifty-eight shots against. Think about that for a second. In their 30-year history, the Sens have never faced that many shots in a game, which means the weakest Ottawa team of all, the 1992-93 expansion group of castoffs and a few prospects, played a tighter game than this touted bunch. 

The Panthers, who came into the league a year after Ottawa, have never before generated 58 shots on goal, so imagine their joy. 

While Smith questions the accuracy of the shot total, he didn’t deny that his group, which had been the best in the league in limiting odd-man rushes, gave up eight against Florida. 

“That’s not us,” Smith said. 

While Zub is not expected to be out long term, his absence underlined the Senators’ need to bolster their blue line. Thomas Chabot, who finished minus-2 on Saturday, played more than 29 minutes in the loss after playing 27:16 (and minus-2) in the loss to Minnesota. 

This was supposed to be the year Chabot’s minutes became more reasonable. That Nikita Zaitsev is getting regular shifts is problematic, and an illustration that the team has to be looking for defensive help around the league. Dillon Heatherington has been called up from AHL Belleville and is a seventh defenceman at the moment. 

On home ice, Ottawa was controlling play more, which protected its blue line. On the road, the defence has been getting exposed and goaltender Forsberg bombarded.  

The Senators skated on Sunday in Sunrise before leaving for Tampa. Smith altered his lineup in an attempt to shake things up. 

Pinto moves up

It was only a matter of time, and now the move has been made – centre Shane Pinto, tied with Brady Tkachuk for the team lead in goals with six, was shifted to line two from the third line at Sunday’s skate.

Pinto takes Derick Brassard’s place between Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux as Brassard is expected to sit out. Fourth-line centre Mark Kastelic moves up to the third line between Mathieu Joseph and Tyler Motte while Dylan Gambrell gets his first game of the year to centre the fourth line between Parker Kelly and Austin Watson. 

“Some guys are going to get rewarded, and some minutes will go up for some other guys,” Smith said of the changes. “Some (minutes) will come down and that’s just part of the competition. Everybody’s got to be better, from the coaching staff to the players, we’re in this together. This isn’t me telling them or them telling me. We all want to win here.”

Smith said he likes the two-way play of Pinto, and not just his offence, in moving him up with DeBrincat and Giroux. Pinto, who is among the early Calder Trophy candidates, is excited about his new assignment. 

“Those two guys are unbelievable players,” Pinto said. “I just have to put my work boots on, move my feet and do the best I can. I’m not going to change my game.”

The transition shouldn’t be difficult because Pinto has already seen lots of power play time with DeBrincat and Giroux. Two of Pinto’s six goals have come on the power play. 

Dash brothers

They are known for their offence, but Ottawa’s top line of Tkachuk-Tim Stützle-Drake Batherson has been on for a slew of even-strength goals these past two games.

Each member of the line was minus-3 versus Minnesota. Against Florida, Stützle and Batherson were minus-3 while Tkachuk was minus-2. Tkachuk and Batherson are only minus-5 on the year, so they were even or better before these past two games. Stützle is minus-4 on the season. Winger Mathieu Joseph leads Ottawa in plus-minus at plus-7.

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