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Senators put in valiant effort with COVID-weakened lineup in loss to Kings

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OTTAWA — A “new normal” is welcomed, but life is anything but normal for the Ottawa Senators, who continue to be bodyslammed by a COVID-19 outbreak.

And yet, they are forced to play games as usual.

After a COVID-weakened lineup battled to a 3-2 loss in Boston Tuesday, the Senators were back on home ice Thursday to face the Los Angeles Kings and lost their sixth straight, 2-0, albeit valiantly. The Kings, behind goals by Anze Kopitar and Andreas Athanasiou, extended their winning streak to seven games.

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The shutout loss ended a run of 77 consecutive games for the Senators without being blanked. They were not shut out all of last season.

Of course, the game was merely the backstory for the Senators on this day.

When winger Alex Formenton and starting goaltender Matt Murray were placed on the COVID protocols list Thursday morning, the number had grown to eight Sens players plus assistant coach Jack Capuano, who had experienced positive COVID tests over the past week. The number swelled to nine players just prior to the warmup as defenceman Nikita Zaitsev was added to the list. He was replaced by rookie prospect Lassi Thomson.

Meet the makeshift roster: Three of Ottawa’s six starting defencemen had seen next-to-no NHL action this season. Thomson was making his NHL debut, Dillon Heatherington was in his first NHL game since the five he played with Dallas in 2018-19, and Erik Brannstrom was appearing in his second game of the season.

If that blueline wasn’t thin enough, rock-solid D-man Artem Zub left the game in the first period with an upper-body injury. Remarkably, all of the subs held their own and Thomson made a tremendous impression in his first NHL game as a smart, effective defenceman. He played 22:25 in a graceful debut.

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A total of 14 Ottawa players are now out either with injury or illness.

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Senators head coach D.J. Smith could not have been prouder for the way his team fought to the final second, crediting Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick for stealing the win.

“There’s not a guy I can say didn’t give everything he had,” Smith said. “Lassi Thomson was phenomenal. He looked like he’d played in the league a long time. He made plays, he defended without hesitating. And he hasn’t played or practised with us.”

While the Senators have had performance issues this season, on this night they will be remembered for their heart. And for defending better with a throw-together D-corps than on some nights with a full complement of players.

Thomson said he was so excited just to be called up the night before the game, after playing in Laval with the B-Sens, he couldn’t sleep. And that was without knowing he was actually going to play in Ottawa. Instead, he found out minutes before game time.

“I think that’s the best way,” Thomson said. “I’m the kind of guy who’s going to be so nervous.”

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He said he was encouraged by his teammates to have fun and enjoy the game. The entire team did, except for the end result.

“It stings to lose,” said defenceman Thomas Chabot. “But the way we played is something good.”

Putting a roster together is the least of the worries around a team that has been battling COVID-19 issues home and away.

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Hotel stays, at home

Even while in Ottawa, some Senators players and staff with families are staying at a hotel to protect their loved ones. Head coach Smith, the father of three, including two young kids at home, is in that category. So is goalie coach Zac Bierk, who has young twins at home.

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“Whether it’s a hotel or staying at another coach’s house, there’s probably a handful or so (in that situation),” Smith said. “I think the biggest thing is — people with kids. If I’m at home, while my kids are there it’s tough for me not to see them. Same as Zac Bierk.”

Hockey families are trying to ensure their children can stay healthy and continue to attend school or daycare after a year in which that was not possible.

“In Zac Bierk’s case, he had twins that were born premature and their immune systems are weak,” Smith said. “You can put them in real danger.”

Smith said there are probably another handful of players or staff still at home but sleeping on a couch or isolating in a basement to keep away from their family as best as possible.

Two Ottawa players who tested positive on the road, defencemen Josh Brown and Victor Mete, had to drive home from Boston in an effort to prevent spread. It’s all part of a chaotic past week for the Senators.

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“It’s not the ideal situation, but there’s a lot worse things in the world,” said Smith, on a Remembrance Day when it was easy to imagine worse. “We’ll get through this.”

Forward Nick Paul said the team is making the best of a difficult stretch in which the team has been losing games and losing players.

“This is just another challenge, it brings the group closer together,” Paul says. “Those that can be in the same room, that is.

“The group needs to stick together, have each other’s backs and prepare for the game.”

Paul described the mood in the room as “pretty positive,” using a word that has come to be associated with dread in our COVID-shaped world. As Sylvain St-Laurent of LeDroit noted on Twitter: The Senators new slogan could be — more positive thoughts, fewer positive tests.

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“We’re going to lean on each other, support each other and when it comes to game time we’re going to play for each other,” Paul said.

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Despite the outbreak, the Senators have been taking every precaution, including wearing masks, social distancing and having food served inside team hotels.

“It’s a very contagious virus,” Paul said. “Things happen where people are still getting it, but we’re taking the right steps. All we can do is hope that it stops here.”

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Paul said the players are used to the protocols at this point having been in a bubble for all of last season.

Those who have tested positive and are away from the group face physical and mental challenges through this ordeal, Smith said.

“Some guys have had a few more symptoms than others, but it’s probably more mentally — you’re an NHL player and you want to play the games,” Smith said. “Your team is struggling and you want to help and you can’t. That’s the hardest part, is not being able to be out there with your buddies and competing.”

According to Smith, none of the stricken players is asymptomatic. They are all dealing with something, either congestion or other cold-like symptoms despite the fact that everyone is double-vaccinated.

The remaining healthy players and staff met as a group Thursday morning, as team leaders tried to keep spirits strong through the day-to-day testing and worry.

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“There’s a lot of stress being put on a lot of people,” Smith said.

The Senators COVID-19 list: Austin Watson, Connor Brown, Dylan Gambrell, Alex Formenton, Nick Holden, Victor Mete, Josh Brown, Matt Murray, Nikita Zaitsev and assistant coach Jack Capuano. Four of the eight are defencemen — Zaitsev, Holden, Mete and J. Brown.

While fans in Ottawa questioned why the show must go on, with a condensed schedule due to the 2022 Olympic hockey tournament in February, the NHL is reluctant to cancel games due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The San Jose Sharks had seven players and head coach Bob Boughner test positive before things improved at the start of the month.

To which the Sens responded: Seven plus one? Hold my beer.

Filip Gustavsson, who has been Ottawa’s most consistent goaltender, was nevertheless in the American Hockey League this past week until he was also recalled and got the start against L.A.

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With starter Murray out and backup Anton Forsberg battling a non-COVID virus, Gustavsson was the obvious choice. Forsberg was well enough to dress for the game and sit on the bench.

While stopping 34 of 36 shots, Gustavsson played well enough to keep the Senators in a game in which the roster was a shell of its “normal” self.



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