Shuffled to centre as a result of Tim Stutzle being added to the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol, Ottawa’s Nick Paul stepped up with a big performance on Thursday night.
Paul scored twice in the first period and Matt Murray made 27 saves for his first win of the season as the Senators won 4-1 over the slumping Calgary Flames.
“Wherever I play, I try to do my role, which is create space, win battles, take pucks to the net,” said Paul, who had scored just once in his previous 19 games. On Thursday, he picked up his third career two-goal game and his first since Dec. 30, 2019.
His line with Connor Brown and Alex Formenton combined for six points.
“When you’re playing and making space, those types of players are the ones who find you and make things happen,” Paul said.
His first goal came 1:43 into the game off a Flames defensive zone turnover. The puck popped out to Formenton, who set up Paul in the slot and his wrist shot went over Jacob Markstrom’s glove.
“He did a heck of a job,” Senators coach DJ Smith said of Paul. “He shot pucks. He was big. He was strong. He did everything you’d want a guy to come back and do and he was arguably our best player tonight.”
Later in the period, Mikael Backlund had the puck stripped from him by Formenton, and Brown and Paul worked a give-and-go with Paul neatly finishing it off at 16:37.
“He was all over the ice. He was dancing, so when the big boy is feeling it, you get him the puck,” said Brown.
The Senators were playing their first game since New Year’s Day and just their second in 26 days, but they didn’t look rusty outshooting Calgary 34-28 as they opened an abbreviated two-game Alberta road trip.
The Flames were playing on home ice for the first time since Dec. 11 following postponements caused by a COVID outbreak and capacity restrictions.
With restrictions still in place, the actual attendance was considerably less than the permitted half capacity with far more empty seats than fans. There wasn’t much for the home crowd to cheer about.
“This is not a knock on goaltending or anyone but when the other team scores a goal on the first shot, it’s never the way that you want to start a game,” said Flames winger Milan Lucic.
A four-game losing streak and a 2-7-1 mark in their last 10 games is becoming cause for concern in Calgary.
“The emotional level of our group has been lacking for a period of time now,” said Flames coach Darryl Sutter.
Markstrom stopped 30-of-34 shots in the losing effort and fell to 12-8-5. Murray, who lost his first six starts of the season, won for the first time since Apr. 22, 2021.
Drake Batherson and Brown also scored for Ottawa (10-18-2). Matthew Tkachuk replied for Calgary (17-11-6).
“It’s definitely not the way we want it to be right now. Thank God we had the start we did, it will keep us in it still,” Tkachuk said. “There’s no panic by any stretch, but we want to fix this.”
Up 2-0 after 20 minutes, the Senators outshot the Flames 13-6 in the second period, getting the only goal in the final minute on a sharp angle snipe from Batherson.
The Flames got on the scoreboard 47 seconds into the third on Tkachuk’s perfect deflection of Chris Tanev’s point shot.
However, quashing any comeback hopes, Brown restored Ottawa’s three-goal lead on a breakaway at 4:52. Pouncing on a Tkachuk’s errant pass from behind the Senators’ net, he raced away on a breakaway and beat Markstrom through the five-hole.
“There has to be a lot more guys able to handle adversity. That’s a big challenge for this group,” Sutter said. “It’s still so much of a process that it can be frustrating, but at the same time, we can dig in and play better.”
Ottawa defenceman Jacob Bernard-Docker, who hails from the nearby town of Okotoks, Alta., was activated from the taxi squad and paired with Thomas Chabot. Among the family on hand to watch his ninth career game were Bernard-Docker’s parents, who watched him play an NHL game live for the first time. Scott Sabourin’s first game for Ottawa since Nov, 14 lasted just over a period. He left with a dislocated finger after losing a one-sided fight against Lucic.