The Senators Are Great Spoilers
12:21 PM EST on February 15, 2023
The prodigal son has returned! Kevin Mandolese was born in Canada's capital city in 2000, but he left when he was six years old. He grew up in Montreal, honed his skills as a goaltender in Nova Scotia with the QMJHL's Cape Breton Eagles (formerly the Screaming Eagles, until presumably the county passed a revised noise ordinance), and was picked by the Senators in the sixth round of the 2018 draft. He developed into a true standout shot-stopper at the junior level, navigated inconsistent opportunities in the Sens' minor-league system, and then, at age 22, got the call-up to debut for his sort-of hometown team on Tuesday night.
What followed was the platonic ideal of a late-season Ottawa Senators game. On the road and having nothing really to play for besides individual satisfaction, facing an Islanders squad that badly needs points to be a presence in the playoff chase, the Sens denied New York the full two with an infuriating, unexpected shootout win highlighted by this guy Mandolese outdueling Islanders star netminder Ilya Sorokin.
That Mandolese was getting a shot at all was indicative of where Ottawa sits right now. Their record is better than it's been since their rebuild began, but it's still only superior to three teams in the East. Of their four top scorers last year, all of whom were 22 years old or younger, two haven't been around, as possible future superstar Josh Norris dealt with a shoulder injury and Alex Formenton failed to reach a contract agreement with the team. Even with the arrival of an Obi-Wan figure in Claude Giroux, the young forwards haven't developed fast enough to make up for the losses, the defense remains shallow, and Mandolese's position is now a blank space. Both of their replacement-level goalies at the start of the year, Cam Talbot and Anton Forsberg, are hurt, which has pushed the Sens into "Sure, why not?" mode. On Monday, they used the 6-foot-7, 2019 second-rounder Mads Søgaard, who got the win in just his fourth career game. On Tuesday, they gave Mandolese a try.
Judging by these last two days, the new Sens goalies are the best Canadian duo since Tegan and Sara. Søgaard's win ruled, as the Sens body-slammed another playoff hopeful when they came back from a very late 3-1 deficit to beat Calgary in overtime. It felt greedy to think about a repeat against the Islanders, but here, too, the kids hit gold. With his parents driving down from Quebec to watch, Mandolese stood strong in the face of a desperate Islanders attack. He saved 41 of 43 shots in regulation, turned away five more in overtime despite an Islanders power play, and then in the shootout, Mandolese was unfazed by both Bo Horvat and Kyle Palmieri.
At home, going against a weak team playing the second night of a back-to-back, and shooting on a brand-new goalie: These are the games that the Islanders have to win. And yet, the Sens at their most Sensy can take every assumption of hockey and dunk it into the trash can.
“It’s not good for the heart, that’s for sure,” Mandolese's dad, Luciano, told The Athletic. “But it was still fun.”
I know I lumped the Sens in with the carcasses of the NHL last week, implying that you could ignore them for the rest of the season. And while their record still smells pretty stinky, Ottawa might have some life in them. This is the best time of year to be a fan of the Senators, when the losses are tolerable and the wins are so, so sweet, especially when they come at a better team's expense. Unlike a franchise that is outright tanking, who believes that its future lies mostly in players who haven't even signed contracts yet, the Sens can picture a time when the children playing now are all grown up and leading a playoff run. As a fan, you can comfortably invest yourself in the development of guys like Tim Stützle or Drake Batherson, knowing that they aren't just keeping the seats warm for the real winners.
While it's hard to talk definitively about long-term plans until the expected sale of this franchise is complete, the Sens' ideal path is something resembling that of the New Jersey Devils, current holders of the third-best record in the league. Eyed as a breakout team the last few years, the Devils suffered misfortune and underachievement before making the jump to light speed this season, achieving success by augmenting a skilled collection of young forwards with some key outside acquisitions.
It's that second part, even after the major pick-up of Giroux last summer, that gives me some pause when forecasting gains for the Senators. You can't complain about the prospects they've assembled, but trades and free-agent signings are just as critical to building a winner. Sens GM Pierre Dorion made some serious missteps the last time he tried to make win-now moves, but several years later, the opportunity for redemption is fast approaching.
But that's not what this time of year is about. Now is meant for watching the conviction drain out of the eyes of some poor stressed-out coach as he sees his team lose a step in the standings because they can't score on some guy they've never heard of. I'm already psyching myself up for the Sens to shut out the Bruins on Monday afternoon.