After grinding out first series win, Senators ready for more

Photo: Tim Austen

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

The Belleville Senators continue to tick off items on the franchise to-do list.

Last Wednesday brought the team’s first-ever Calder Cup Playoff victory, a 3-1 win over Toronto in Game 1 of their first-round North Division clash.

Now after a nail-biting Sunday afternoon at CAA Arena, the B-Sens have their first series win, a 4-3 overtime victory in a winner-take-all Game 3 that sent them on to a match-up with Cleveland.

Belleville hosts the Monsters in Game 1 of the best-of-five North Division Semifinals on Wednesday night.

It has been a long path to this point since the Senators arrived in Belleville in 2017. They missed the playoffs each of their first two seasons. In year three they looked like a Calder Cup contender led by Josh Norris and Drake Batherson, but the start of the COVID-19 pandemic ended the season in March. They made the postseason for the first time in 2022, but were dealt a two-game sweep by Rochester in the first round.

This seventh season is different already.

“It feels excellent,” head coach David Bell told the media after Sunday’s win. “I’m super happy for the boys.

“That’s a grind. That’s kind of been our M.O. all year… We don’t quit and nothing’s been easy. It’s never been easy for our group.”

Knowing the importance of veteran leadership, the Ottawa Senators brought in forward Garrett Pilon via free agency last July, signing him just 10 days after he had lifted the Calder Cup with the Hershey Bears. The sixth-year pro went on the lead Belleville with 47 points in 62 games during the regular season, then scored twice in Game 2 at Toronto to force overtime before netting the series-clincher at 2:17 of OT in Game 3.

The parent club’s management team is attempting to build something, both in Ottawa as well as Belleville. Michael Andlauer, who once owned the Hamilton Bulldogs AHL franchise, bought the Senators last September and installed Steve Staios as his general manager and president of hockey operations. Dave Poulin came aboard as Ottawa’s senior vice president of hockey operations. And signs of progress are starting to show: 13 players logged playing time in both Ottawa and Belleville this season, joined an Ottawa roster already brimming with Belleville graduates like Norris, Batherson, Thomas Chabot, Ridly Greig, Erik Brannstrom, Mark Kastelic and Jacob Bernard-Docker.

In Belleville, the AHL Sens showed well down the stretch, and an 8-1-0-0 finish secured the team its Calder Cup Playoff berth. For a group of players learning how to navigate playoff hockey and win, Sunday marked a significant step. When the Marlies evened the game at 3-3 with 6:41 to go in regulation, the B-Sens had to hold off any further damage, regroup during the intermission, and then end overtime quickly.

“It’s huge,” said Pilon, who also scored the OT winner in a pivotal Game 5 of last year’s Calder Cup Finals. “I think we had some guys talk up (in the intermission) just to make sure we went back to playing the way we were. When you get a lead like that, and there’s 10 minutes left or so, you almost are just hanging on, and I think that’s kind of what we reverted back to. It’s a good learning lesson for us to keep playing, keep going forward.”

Eliminating the Marlies provided some degree of experience. Facing Cleveland will bring another level of pressure. And if Belleville advances, that pressure and those demands will grow.

“We’re looking as an organization to evaluate these guys in the bigger moment because nothing gets bigger than the NHL playoffs,” Bell said, “and that’s ultimately where we want these guys to get to be contributors for the Ottawa Senators. Now we can send guys up there that have playoff experience. We haven’t been able to do that in the past.”

With the AHL’s version of the Battle of Ontario done for the year, the Senators are preparing to face a Cleveland team that they haven’t seen since Dec. 15. There has been plenty of change, plenty of growth since then.

“We’ve grown a lot as a team,” Pilon said, “I think that’s a big thing. But we’ll go over the tape and look how we need to play against them and come out swinging.”