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Spring fever hitting fans hard in Ottawa as Senators make unexpected playoff push

Spring fever has hit Ottawa. 

And it appears to be contagious. 

Call it a potent mix of longer, brighter days combined with an Ottawa Senators hockey team playing lights out right now, surging as wild-card contenders. 

Saturday night at the CTC was a prime example. Perhaps even the best example. 

Ottawa fans hyper-reacted to the smallest details of the evening, putting up a roar when newly acquired defenceman Jakob Chychrun took his first shift on home ice, his No. 6 and giant image appearing on the scoreboard screen. 

When Chychrun scored his first goal as an Ottawa Senator, part of a 5-2 rout of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the crowd of 18,073 erupted. Clearly, they are paying attention to recent news events surrounding this team. 

You know things are going well when the players are having just as much fun as the fans. 

Later in the game, Chychrun saw his own image on the scoreboard and raised his arm in salute, which of course sent fans into a tizzy. 

“I don’t know what made me do that, just spur of the moment,” Chychrun told reporters afterwards.

“But the crowd got me going, so that’s what it’s all about, just having fun.”

Chychrun’s sister, Taylor, and his grandfather, John, stood and toasted their guy during this welcome home for a player whose father, Jeff Chychrun, grew up in nearby Nepean. 

If the trade for Chychrun before Friday’s deadline is the home run it appears to be, the 24-year-old defenceman is going to be front and centre during this push to reach the top eight of the Eastern Conference. 

Believe in omens? The victory over Columbus was the Sens’ fifth straight, a run they haven’t seen since the last time the Senators reached the playoffs, in 2017. 

Of course, there is some work to do. Heading into tonight’s game in Chicago against the last-place Blackhawks, the Sens at 68 points are three behind Pittsburgh for the second wild card spot and four back of the New York Islanders, but with three games in hand on NYI. 

If the Senators look like the hungriest team among the wild-card contenders, their fans certainly have a thirst for post-season hockey. 

In the third period on Saturday, a chant went up in the stands: “WE WANT PLAY-OFFS! WE WANT PLAY-OFFS!”

Apparently, the Senators bench heard the chant. 

“It kind of gave me chills, to be honest,” said centre Tim Stützle, who scored two of Ottawa’s five goals to surge to a team-leading 31 goals on the season. “It was so loud and it was awesome. We’re playing great right now and hope to keep it going.”

For a different perspective, I spent most of Saturday’s game in the stands, where the atmosphere has been transformed every bit as much as the Senators bearing in the Eastern Conference. 

This was Pride Night, and fans were wearing or waving their Pride shirts. Senators head coach D.J. Smith wore a Pride logo on his Senators cap at the morning availability, and spoke of the importance of inclusion in hockey. 

It was a topic of discussion that a night like this could not have happened under the watch of previous owner Eugene Melnyk, who kept a tight rein on his staff’s social media and promotional expression. And yet his daughters, Anna and Olivia, guardians of the club through a pending ownership transition, made it clear they wanted the Senators to be more inclusive. 

And so we are witnessing a franchise regeneration at all levels, on all fronts. A talented, mostly 20-something group of players are maturing into the type of competitive and caring team that the Senators were known for in earlier renditions. Many of those alumni are attending games and practices, feeling more welcome at the Canadian Tire Centre than at any time since they wore the team crest themselves. 

Dorion has built a solid core and Smith has them playing a better all-around game, complete with improved five-on-five scoring, elite special teams play and tighter defence than we have seen all season. 

Spectators are pouring out to Kanata in droves, driving up attendance to a level not seen since the Senators were last competitive. Yes, there is a buy-one, get-one free initiative for the month of March, but there were years when these promotions didn’t make a dent. 

Today, fans want to support their team. And as much as the region looks forward to a new, central arena one day, the trek to the west end clearly isn’t the burden some would make it out to be. 

I asked an usher in the 100 level if he can feel the difference in the fan base. 

“They’re very excited,” he said. “Because this team is exciting to watch.”

It’s that simple. Who wouldn’t pay to see a generational talent like Stützle, an emerging superstar in the game at age 21. 

Captain Brady Tkachuk wears his heart on his broad sleeve. When the Senators were swamping the Detroit Red Wings in a pair of games in late February, Tkachuk challenged the entire Detroit bench. 

“Who wants it?” he taunted. Later in the game, Tkachuk scored a goal and did a two-arm, bicep flex pose. 

On Saturday, a clever fan unveiled a poster of Tkachuk, in the pose. With the caption: ‘Who wants it?’

Veterans like Claude Giroux, Travis Hamonic and Derick Brassard, caught up in the youth wave, are playing as though they are kids again. Ditto for goaltender Cam Talbot, who will be a key figure down the stretch. 

The next eight days are big, with road games in Chicago, Seattle, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. The Senators don’t need to win them all, just enough to stay in the mix, before they finish the month with five of eight games at home. 

Fun times. Spring fever. It is spreading like a wave in the Nation’s Capital. 


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