Rivalry games provide valuable lessons for young Senators

The Ottawa Senators have just three games left on their bingo card — but likely none that will reach the heights of the past two Saturday home dates.

When the Senators faced the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens on the 16th and 23rd of April, they not only reached a season apex, they also set the stage for a world of future possibility for Ottawa’s young players and the fan base.

More than 38,000 fans poured through the turnstiles for these two games. The official gates were 18,655 and 19,410 at the Canadian Tire Center — both going into the books as full-capacity sellouts .

Never mind that the majority at the CTC were wearing the familiar enemy colors of blue/white and bleu, blanc et rouge. How else is Tim Stützle going to get used to how it feels to get booed on home ice, the way that Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson learned before him?

Invading Original Six fan forces are a fact of life in Ottawa, and one that has gotten lost in the reduced crowds and empty arenas of the past two COVID-impacted seasons. Eventually, when the Senators get really good again, they will rely less on opposition fans to fill the place.

Until recently, the youngest of Senators haven’t had a taste of what these Eastern Canadian rivals can be. It’s been seven years since the Sens and Habs met in a playoff series – the culmination of the Hamburglar run of 2015. And Ottawa hasn’t faced the Leafs in a Battle of Ontario series since 2004, which, as some like to remind the Leaf fan base, happens to be the last time Toronto won a playoff series.

No one is going to mistake Toronto’s 5-4 overtime win a week ago Saturday for a playoff game, and yet it had enough elements of drama, flow and crowd intensity to give off what Sens winger Austin Watson would call later “the closest thing we ‘re going to get this year to a playoff-style game.”

It was more of the same this past Saturday, with the added carryover from the Habs-Sens game in Montreal on April 5, the night that Stützle got kneed by Nick Suzuki and veteran Montreal winger Brendan Gallagher accused the Senators forward of embellishment. And while Stützle did finish that game, he missed two subsequent games with what we assume was a knee sprain from that hit, which put the boots to the embellishment angle (except for some of the Habs faithful, who brought their displeasure to the rink on Saturday).

The night began with a ceremonial puck drop for the cause of mental health, after which Gallagher declined to shake hands with Senators captain Brady Tkachuk, adding a bit more fuel to the fire. To his credit, Gallagher apologized for the slight post game, saying that he simply forgot with all the distractions going on.

Fair enough. But it is odd that this was the second time that Tkachuk has been ceremoniously snubbed recently. It also happened in a game against the Detroit Red Wings, as Dylan Larkin shook hands with the ceremonial participants on the ice, but not Tkachuk.

The Habs game started strangely, with Senators head coach DJ Smith opting to start his grinders, then got stranger as the grinders started scoring.

Big Mark Kastelic, playing in just his 13th NHL game, scored twice, his first career NHL goals, but that wasn’t even the amazing part. On the first one, at 2:33 of the first, he fired a puck off the right boards and got engaged in a fight with Michael Pezzetta before Kastelic came to realize he’d scored.

“It was kind of a funny situation,” Kastelic told reporters post-game.

Moments earlier, Kastelic told Sportsnet’s Caroline Cameron that he is quickly getting into the Sens-Habs rivalry.

“There’s a ton of history between the two teams, especially this year — we don’t like each other too much,” Kastelic said. “The atmosphere was great for both sides, it’s something I’m thankful to be a part of.”

Thought of in Ottawa as a fourth-line role player, Kastelic has some skill, which he displayed on his second goal, outlasting Carey Price before lifting a backhand over him to the top of the net. Keep in mind Kastelic did score 47 goals in 66 games for the WHL Calgary Hitmen in 2016-17 (with 122 PIM).

The Senators made the Arizona-born Kastelic a fifth round draft pick in 2019. Among his other attributes, the six-foot-three, 210-pound Kastelic has great bloodlines. His father, Ed, played more than 200 NHL games and Kastelic’s maternal grandfather was the great Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Pat Stapleton.

Lest Kastelic’s explosion on Saturday go to his head, he was quickly sent back down to the AHL Belleville Senators on Sunday. But at least it was for a good cause. Kastelic scored a goal and helped the AHL Senators beat the Toronto Marlies 4-3 to clinch the first playoff spot for the B-Sens since moving to Belleville, Ont. from Binghamton, NY in 2017. Kastelic is expected to jump right back into Ottawa’s lineup Tuesday for a game against the visiting New Jersey Devils.

As teams rebuild, the focus is naturally on the top six forwards and top four defense in the program, the leaders who will pave the way as the group evolves into a playoff team. But the bottom six forwards and support defense pairings matter, too.

On Saturday, it felt like we were watching an audition for future roles with this team. Austin Watson scored another big goal to continue his surprising run (six goals this month) and played more than 15 minutes vs the Habs. Parker Kelly, a smallish superpest who hits beyond his weight class, almost like a young Wendel Clark, scored again and played 13:17. Dylan Gambrell, the fourth-line centre, played 17:51, which tells you what Smith thought of his game.

“They’ve been our best line,” Smith gushed about the Gambrell-Kelly-Watson trio. “Outside of the power play, where our big guys are scoring some nice goals, the Gambrell line has been our most consistent over the last little bit here.

“They can play against anybody, they can check. Now they’re contributing. They’ve been real good for us.”

Just the way you’d want your checking line to perform in a playoff series sometime down the road.

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