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Coach Smith under the microscope as expectations rise for Senators fans

It’s a good thing the Ottawa Senators stormed back to beat the Montreal Canadiens 5-4 Saturday night, mostly on the heroics of Messrs. Shane Pinto, Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat.

The panache of that win — in pre-season, mind you — brought fans back from the brink of despair following a 6-3 Ottawa loss in Belleville, Ont. against a Toronto Marlies type squad wearing Maple Leafs uniforms.

Following that defeat, extreme fans were not just wanting Senators head coach D.J. Smith fired, they were already debating whether his replacement should be an internal hire or a name coach from the outside. The Senators are spending on players now. Would they spend on a coach?

Welcome to the new world of the Ottawa Senators, where zealous fans were invested all summer long in transactions that brought in players like DeBrincat, Giroux, Cam Talbot and Tyler Motte, and are now on hyper-alert to every deft pass, breakaway, giveaway and assorted other sins, venial and mortal.

Just wait unitl the season actually starts.

The Sens have dared create heightened interest and expectations for this team, and are riding the double edge of that sword. As one member of the organization said on Saturday, before Ottawa’s overtime victory against Montreal — better that fans overreact than don’t care. For a professional sports organization, hysteria beats apathy every time.

To be fair, the concern from the fans who have been paying attention the past few seasons is less about the pre-season record and more about the way the team plays. The most discerning of fans want to see signs of better defensive play and zone coverage. The quick boil-over, before the regular season even begins, illustrates the ramped up pressure on a coach that has had the reins for three years now.

Fans want to see the best players play, something Smith has promised for this season, but hasn’t always been the case. Based on the pre-season to date, and especially after Saturday’s game, that should mean Nikita Zaitsev is outside of the top six defencemen while Erik Brannstrom, who was flying all evening, should be in.

Smith was pleased, not just with the win and the offensive explosion from Pinto (two goals), DeBrincat (two goals, including the OT winner) and Giroux (three assists, two of them on faceoff wins that led to power-play goals), but also by the manner in which the Sens tightened their game. The odd gaffe, most visibly by Zaitsev, who single-handedly created a Habs two-on-none in the first period, was the exception.

“I just thought we played with so much more detail and purpose,” Smith said. “That line of (Mark) Kastelic was putting pucks in there, forechecking. Pinto’s line (with Motte and Mathieu Joseph) continues to be good. Giroux, DeBrincat were sharp, really good for us.

“We tracked, we worked, we moved pucks. A way better hockey game, but just a lot more structure to it.”

Unlike so many fans, Smith was actually pleased his group lost the night before to a group of what he called Leaf prospects “starving to make the team,” because it delivered a lesson in how the Senators need to play. Ottawa showcased its own hungry players in a feisty effort in Winnipeg earlier in the week.

A few observations from Saturday night, the Senators only pre-season game to take place at the Canadian Tire Centre in this year of the neutral-site games:

• A power-play, forward unit of Pinto with DeBrincat and Giroux was lethal, scoring three times, including in overtime, and making a great counter-argument to the current first unit of Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson. Discussion to be continued. Pinto scored twice off bump passes that found him alone in the high slot. He has a shot that is sometimes underestimated. He said it helped that the Habs were more worried about covering DeBrincat, understandably.

• DeBrincat showcased the shot that made him a two-time 41-goal scorer with Chicago. Early in the game, he was focused on setting up teammates. Once he started firing, it was game over. “I like to shoot,” DeBrincat said, afterward. Wonder why?

• Ridly Greig earned the praise of the bench and coaching staff by throwing his body in front of three shots, each time getting so badly stung on the legs and feet he hobbled to the bench. Twice, he went straight to the room for treatment. Pinto compared Greig’s performance to the Scott Sterling video, where he repeatedly gets hit in the head as a hockey goalie.

“He’s a nail gun, honestly,” Pinto said of Greig. “He’s going to be such a huge part of this team in the future. I don’t know if it’s going to be this year, but eventually he’s just going to be one of those guys in the lineup every night.”

Smith said Greig is a “heart-and-soul kind of guy that’s going to be around when the team’s really ready to turn the corner.” Translation — Greig, who just turned 20, will likely get some time in the AHL this season to hone his game.

• Four forwards in OT? Yes, with a 4-on-3 advantage in overtime, Smith opted to send four forwards over the boards – Pinto, Giroux, DeBrincat and Derick Brassard, here on a PTO. Brassard played well between Giroux and DeBrincat as a line on Saturday. Smith said he would consider doing that in the regular season, but keep in mind that Thomas Chabot did not play Saturday. It’s more likely to see three forwards and Chabot in that situation.

• Brannstrom was excellent. Pencil him in to start the season? “He was really good,” Smith said. “He was all over the ice, he made plays, he looked good on the power play when I put him on, he broke pucks out, he looked dangerous in the offensive (zone) and good for him. He’s earned it.”

Kastelic is pushing for that fourth-line centre spot. Smith loved his skating, robust play and forechecking. “He is one of those guys that just does what the coach asks of him all the time and I can’t imagine he’s that much fun to play against. He’s certainly making it real hard for us.” Note – if Kastelic wins the fourth-line C spot, the Senators would have this young core at centre: Norris, 23, Stützle, 20, Pinto, 21, and Kastelic, 23.

• Prized rookie D-man Jake Sanderson did not look out of place, yet again. “He defends really well, and I think that’s what is going to allow him to have a good first year in this league,” Smith said. “He can play against good players, he has a good stick. He knows where the puck should go. And he really likes the details of the game. I think his offensive side will come, but it’s the defensive side, his penalty killing, that is going to allow him to play even more minutes.”

Roster cuts made

As expected, the Senators made deep cuts to get down to 30 players for the final days of camp. There are no surprises in the moves, but among the notable names released to AHL Belleville are: Lassi Thomson, Angus Crookshank, Max Guenette, Cole Reinhardt, Roby Jarventie and Egor Sokolov. First-rounder Tyler Boucher has been sent to the OHL Ottawa 67’s. Veteran defenceman Dillon Heatherington has been waived for the purpose of sending him to Belleville.

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