If this was the night the Ottawa Senators season turned around, what a night it was.
The night Brady Tkachuk put the team on his back and carried his teammates to an overtime victory in Madison Square Garden.
Bonfire Brady’s Tour de Force.
There were just enough fumes left from Tkachuk’s Big Night on Broadway for him to score Ottawa’s first of five goals Saturday night in a goofy but entertaining 5-2 romp over the San Jose Sharks.
Talk about a back-to-back momentum shift. After so many early season hiccups and setbacks, the Senators have suddenly won four of their past five and are no longer alone in last place in the Atlantic Division. They are tied with the Buffalo Sabres, and within shouting distance of the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings.
Giroux ignites crowd
Saturday’s win over San Jose, featuring three Sens power-play goals against a stingy penalty kill unit, was important for a couple of reasons. It kept the Manhattan mojo going and energized one of the largest gates of the season at the Canadian Tire Centre – 17,101. Given that this was the only Saturday home date of December, the upper suites were brimming with company Christmas party revelers, busting for a good time.
The Sens gave it to them. Nothing was more entertaining than a wild sequence in the third period, which started with a 4-on-3 kill by the home team, the score 4-2 Ottawa at the time. Defenceman Travis Hamonic broke his stick, making it 4-on-2.5. Somehow, the Sens survived, with goaltender Anton Forsberg stopping a flurry of shots. As the penalty to Thomas Chabot expired, the puck squirted free to Claude Giroux, who had a two-on-none break.
And so Giroux – takes a slapshot???
And scores, of course. His second of the game and 11th of the season for the cagy veteran.
The CTC exploded with noise as their hometown hero delivered with such panache.
“Between periods, I told Pinto I was going to score on a slapshot, so I didn’t really have a choice,” Giroux said later, typically deadpan. He added that it’s the loudest he has heard the building since he joined the Sens in the off-season.
“That’s why you play the game,” Giroux added, acknowledging the crowd.
Tkachuk called the slapshot goal “vintage ‘G’” and “almost the loudest moment that I’ve heard in this rink when that happened. So, it’s definitely exciting.”
Tkachuk game for the ages
As fun as Saturday’s victory was for the home fans, those watching on TV the night before saw a signature performance by a young Ottawa captain who would make a fine comic book superhero.
"Bonfire Brady" had one for the franchise annals. Playing in his 300th game, Tkachuk scored his 100th career goal to send a frenetic, playoff-style game against the host New York Rangers into overtime. After surviving a breakaway by former Senator Mika Zibanejad, the Senators counted on Captain Brady for the OT winner, racing clear to tuck a five-hole backhand shot past Igor Shesterkin, who had been brilliant for the Rangers. Career goal No. 101 for Tkachuk, and his 11th of the season in this breakout offensive year.
Tkachuk leads the Sens in goals (12), assists (17) and points (29) and is on pace for 99 points.
Wasn’t it enough that Tkachuk led with his heart and his fists? Now he’s the offensive catalyst, too.
“I think all you guys know, you saw it, he steps up in big games,” said linemate Tim Stützle, grinning. “That’s what he did (Friday). The whole team played well, everybody followed him . . . and that move in OT, I didn’t know he had that in his bag, there.”
Tkachuk’s game-tying goal, scored on a tip of a Chabot shot, marked the first time the Senators have made a third-period comeback this season, and was their first goal scored with their goalie pulled for an extra skater. That tip is a play Tkachuk works on every day in practice.
Incredibly, Tkachuk has already scored five career overtime winners with the Senators, placing him tied for fourth on the all-time team list.
Weirdly, ‘Bonfire Brady’ scored three points (2+1) in his 300th game, just as his father, Walt Tkachuk, did in his 300th game. Of course, Brady is carved from the same granite rock from which ‘Walt’ was created.
As much as I hate the expression, there was a so-called “Gordie Howe” hat trick on this night. Tkachuk did have a fight, goal (2) and assist in this thriller at MSG. (Howe’s son, Marty, once said the Gordie hat trick should have more accurately described a goal, assist and cross-check to the face. No one wanted to fight Howe). They soon won’t want to fight Tkachuk, who is built like an oak tree, much like Howe.
At centre ice, Tkachuk fought Rangers captain Jacob Trouba, who was trying to get his team going – coasting a bit against a Sens team that had handled 3-1 in Ottawa last Wednesday.
No big deal, Tkachuk shrugged.
“Usually I don’t really think about it,” Tkachuk said about the timing of his fights. “Whenever it happens it happens.
What a guy, this No. 7.
In their 30-year history, the Senators have never had a player who brings such a complete package – an elite power forward who can impose his will on a game. A young man who stirs the bench like stirring a drink, still coming into his prime. An animated Tkachuk was jumping up and down on the bench as little Alex DeBrincat was mixing it up in a mini-line scrap near the players’ benches late in the game.
“I was fired up, for sure,” Tkachuk said. “It’s one of the best parts of the game – when guys are protecting each other . . . whatever it takes to win.”
Daniel Alfredsson, the longest-serving Senators captain at 13 seasons, was a Hall of Fame captain, a clutch performer with a lot of heart. But he certainly was not an imposing physical figure like the 6-4, 220-pound Tkachuck. Alfie was approaching 27 when he was named captain, already a mature leader. Jason Spezza, an artist and student of the game, had a tough task following Alfie’s footsteps. Erik Karlsson led with his skill. Ditto for Alexei Yashin, who preceded Alfredsson. The early captains, from Laurie Boschman to Randy Cunneyworth, were veteran placeholders until the first group of young stars could emerge, Alfredsson, Marian Hossa etc.
(A neat aside: Karlsson told reporters prior to Saturday’s game that he spent Friday evening with Alfredsson watching the Sens game. Two former captains watching the new guy on the job flourish). Tkachuk opened Saturday’s game by pounding Karlsson into the boards, heavily.
Behold this 23-year-old captain, out of the second great youth wave in Ottawa, the rebuild of 2018-22. Tkachuk was the youngest of the ten captains in franchise history when he was given the ‘C’ last November at age 22.
He was the obvious choice, even if not everyone saw him as the obvious draft choice of 2018.
When Ottawa drafted him fourth overall, there were comments made about his eight-goal total in his final season at Boston University. Did he score enough to merit a top-five selection at the NHL draft? Never mind that he also had 23 assists for a very respectable 31 points in 40 games.
Senators scouts and GM Pierre Dorion saw enough then of what we see today, a kid who simply refuses to back down from any situation. A true winner. With upside as an offensive player, already demonstrated by his brother, Matthew, in Calgary and Florida.
Now that offensive side of Brady is emerging on a nightly basis. He doesn’t take as many low-percentage shots as he did those first few years, when he was often trying to jam pucks home from the side of the crease. His shot is crisper and sneaky heavy. On breakaways, especially in overtime, it’s usually a done deal.
Senators head coach D.J. Smith is endlessly praising Tkachuk for his ability to “drag his team into battle.” As a former tough guy defenceman, who loves old school hockey, Smith couldn’t have a more perfect prototype as captain.
And it was Tkachuk who was most outspoken when fans called for Smith’s firing, over a fourth straight slow start to the season. Despite the team’s record, Tkachuk railed against the “negativity” surrounding Smith’s status. That talk has quieted, to be sure.
It may take some time for Ottawa’s roster to flesh out into a true contender.
When it does, the Sens will have a captain absolutely built to lead them in the playoffs. Their impish comic book superhero who pounds opponents into submission and comes up smiling.