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Senators shut out Panthers in home opener

As a home opener, it had all the essential ingredients.

A syrupy, slo-mo video of star-struck young flag carriers tying their skates in the Ottawa Senators dressing room before leading the team out onto the ice. The crowd chanting "Alfie! Alfie! Alfie!" even before the anthem. Chris Neil on the scoreboard offering a heartfelt "We missed you guys" to the fans. A spitting-image twin of coach Paul MacLean – walrus moustache included – seated directly behind the Senators bench. Double-lung transplant Helene Campbell to drop the puck and, of course, a full house willing to forgive and forget and cash in on the 50-per-cent souvenir discount, the dollar popcorn and the much-appreciated gesture by sponsor Molson Coors Brewing Co.

During long stretches, however, it looked like the beer-sampling promotion had taken place pre-game in the dressing rooms.

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In the end, the Senators prevailed over the visiting Florida Panthers 4-0, but it was hardly a game exhibiting that promised passion and every-game-counts import the experts had predicted.

"It's all good when you win," said MacLean when it was over.

To call the opening period "sloppy" would be polite. A conflation of some players bringing four months of shinny to the rink, some players bringing a month or so of European hockey, some coming from Russia, from the minors, from junior, coaches not sure if it is "O's" and "X's" or "X's" and "O's" – and you have your mid-January opener.

Missed passes, dumb penalties, bad ideas, missed shots, endless icings, goaltenders lost beyond their creases and lines desperately in need of shuffling….. Welcome to the start of the 2013 season.

It is circumstance like this that can produce a situation where, through their first two games, perhaps the best Ottawa Senator has been a 22-year-old defenceman named Patrick Wiercioch, who wasn't good enough to make the team in previous years and has been playing in the minors.

It was Wiercioch who impressed Saturday as Ottawa spoiled the Winnipeg Jets' home opener with a 4-1 come-from-behind victory.

And it was Wiercioch who, halfway through a stumbling first period, saw his close friend Kyle Turris – both come from B.C.'s Lower Mainland – parked off to the left side of the Florida net and sent a perfect cross-ice pass that Turris one-timed behind Panthers goaltender Jose Theodore.

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Turris scored again nearly eight minutes into the second period when he tipped a perfect lead pass by Guillaume Latendresse high behind Theodore.

"Great passes," lauded Turris, while admitting he didn't even really see the Latendresse pass.

The loss was not entirely Theodore's to eat. He even managed a terrific save off an Erik Karlsson breakaway on a bad Florida turnover late in the third period.

But the final minutes were not kind to Theodore as first Ottawa forward Jim O'Brien clipped in a goal on a broken play and then rookie Jakob Silfverberg scored his first NHL goal on a shot Theodore should have had.

"It wasn't my best shot," said Silfverberg, "but it went in somehow."

Theodore's team was so listless that, halfway through the game, they had barely counted 10 shots on Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson. Anderson was superb against Winnipeg; didn't have to be against the Panthers; but he still impressed when forced to.

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Anderson's best moments came in the third period, when his teammates appeared to think the new collective agreement had mandated 40-minute games and, for long stretches, the Panthers took over.

"They kind of took over the game," admitted MacLean. "But in the end we did a good job of weathering the storm."

MacLean had earlier said he was nervous before the game. And despite this 4-0 victory, he was likely just as nervous after. His team won handily, but hardly looked sharp throughout.

The sellout crowd of 19,952 – eerily quiet at times – took delight in booing Alexei Kovalev, who spent two years as a Senator before leaving for the Russian leagues and now on a one-year deal with Florida. Kovalev was paid $10-million (U.S.) to play in Ottawa and delivered about 10 cents worth of effort, though no one ever denied that the ability was there if he cared to show it off outside the practice rink.

Kovalev came into the game the Panthers' leading scorer, having scored and set up two goals in Florida's 5-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in its own home opener Saturday in Sunrise, Fla.

He might have added to that total had his linemates been able to finish a couple of very good setups in the second period.

Kovalev was not the only ex-Senator, as the Panthers also picked up Filip Kuba, former defence partner of Ottawa's Norris-Trophy winner, Erik Karlsson. As well, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen once played for the Senators and assistant coach Craig Ramsay was once an assistant here. Only Kovalev, however, was booed each time he appeared.

The Panthers have never enjoyed much success against Ottawa. Last year the Senators' record against the South Florida team was 3-1-0. Ottawa now holds 43-25-3-2 all-time advantage.

A victory was hoped for as much by the players as the fans.

"We can show some appreciation with a strong effort," coach MacLean had said before the game. He got that, even if it was not exactly a riveting contest.

"We want to give them a reason to keep coming back," added longtime Senators defenceman Chris Phillips.

They'll come back.

Hopefully, so, too, will the skill and intensity level.

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