There are certain eastern cultures that believe it is a bad omen to get a haircut on Thursdays.
So there was Senators head coach Guy Boucher on Thursday morning, freshly clipped and smoothing his new look before taking questions.
No one bothered to ask if he got it cut late Wednesday. What would a day one side or the other matter? When it comes to bad omens, they’ve been pretty much a daily occurrence this past year for a team so dysfunctional that even its general manager admitted this summer that the Senators’ locker room was “broken”.
The litany of problems has been recited regularly: a team that was a double-overtime goal from the Stanley Cup final in 2017 falls to 30th place in a single season; the owner, Eugene Melnyk, says he’ll move the team if people don’t buy more tickets and then backs down on his threat; a controversial fall trade sees the team lose what could be a generational first-round pick in 2019; the partners of two key players end up with legal issues over a nasty social media spat; one of the players involved, Mike Hoffman, gets traded just to get him out of town; the other player, captain Erik Karlsson, the best defenceman in hockey, then gets traded in a deal that produces not a single recognizable name; the team’s most beloved foot soldier, Zack Smith, gets humiliated by being placed on waivers and then, when no other team will pick up his lengthy US$3.25-million-a-year contract, is handed an ‘A’ as assistant captain.
So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say.
Given such history, it is hardly surprising that the most important statistic in Thursday night’s home opener against the Chicago Blackhawks would not be on the scoreboard or the score sheet – but in the stands. Who would come?
Some fans had already given up their season tickets. Some had launched a GoFundMe campaign with which anti-owner billboards went up around town. The team had fought back with free tickets to faithful season-ticket holders as “a token of appreciation.”
As for the players, some – goaltender Craig Anderson, for example – were claiming none of them reads or listens to the media chatter. Others, such as defenceman Mark Borowiecki, embraced the underdog tag, saying the negativity could serve as “a rallying point” for the players.
“If you listen to that BS,” he told TSN, “it really sucks the life out of you. It’s on us to keep that chip on our shoulder.
“We can use some of that outside negative energy and negativity to our benefit.”
Asked if he thought his team might be at least able to “hang in” with some of the lesser teams in the league this season, Matt Duchene was quick to snap back, “We’re not looking to hang with anybody. We’re looking to beat people.”
And so the puck dropped on opening night 2018 before a heavily papered Canadian Tire Centre crowd (announced at 15,858).
The Senators won the opening faceoff.
The Senators gave up a clear breakaway to Chicago captain Jonathan Toews barely 45 seconds in … and Anderson stopped him.
It was not as bad as predicted or expected. The Blackhawks did go ahead early on when forward Alex DeBrincat put a screened shot past Anderson, but the Senators came back two minutes later to tie the game when a shot from the point tipped in off a defender and behind Chicago goalie Cam Ward.
The shooter? Zack Smith – he of the waivers, the humiliation, the ‘A’ on the jersey and the new determination to prove people wrong.
It turned out, in fact, to be a wide-open and highly entertaining opening period for those cheering from the free seats. Toews scored on his second opportunity when he put a shot in off Anderson’s shoulder, but the Senators quickly came back on a pretty goal by young defenceman Max Lajoie, a 2016 fifth-round pick playing in his first NHL game.
Then, much to the shock of the naysayers and the delight of the faithful, the Senators moved in front 3-2 on an Ottawa power play when 21-year-old Colin White scored on a partial wraparound from the left side of the Chicago net.
By the end of the second period, it was a wild affair, with power plays, goal posts, whiffs and enough entertainment to argue that this season might be different – because it has to be different. GM Dorion hold told his hyper-controlling coach to let youth and speed speak as he has refused to in the past.
Boucher, who used to claim “rest is a weapon.” No longer. The 2018-19 Ottawa Senators may have lost much of their arsenal in Karlsson and Hoffman, but some of the new youth – speedy forward Alex Formenton and 19-year-old Brady Tkachuk, who sat out the opener with a sore groin – may have weapons that have nothing to do with rest and everything to do with youthful energy. It is to be hoped if the Senators are ever going to move back from free seats to fully paid seats.
The Senators held their lead until the 12:18 mark of the third, when master puck handler Patrick Kane worked his magic from behind the Ottawa net, sending a perfect pass out to pinching defenceman Brent Seabrook and Seabrook buried a hard wrist shot past Anderson.
Less than a minute into three-on-three overtime, Kane gave the Hawks the 4-3 win on a breakaway backhand.
Chicago had won, but the much disparaged Ottawa Senators had a point.
And they had made a point.