There was a glimmer of excitement in Tim Stützle’s eyes on Wednesday morning as he spoke to a small group of reporters about the impending return of Josh Norris.
Stützle wanted to make sure everybody knew Norris was so eager to return to the Ottawa Senators lineup after a 270-day absence that he was on the ice well ahead of anybody else leading into Wednesday’s contest against the Washington Capitals.
“I think he was 25 minutes early out there today,” Stützle said with a wide grin. “He just loves the game like everybody else.”
Stützle’s expression changed a few seconds later when he started to consider how difficult the past 12 months have been for Norris, who has battled a shoulder issue related to an injury he suffered on Oct. 22 last year.
“There were a lot of ups and downs until (Wednesday),” Stützle said. “I can only imagine how hard it was for him mentally.”
Eleven hours after uttering those words, Stützle tightly wrapped his arms around Norris on the ice at Canadian Tire Centre as the Senators celebrated a 6-1 victory in Norris’ triumphant return. It was an evening scripted by hockey gods with a soft spot for a sentimental storyline.
Midway through the first period, Norris received a crisp, no-look backhand pass from Drake Batherson in the crease and tucked it into a wide-open net behind Washington netminder Darcy Kuemper. As he celebrated the goal, Norris emphatically smashed his right glove against the glass two times.
“It was cool,” Norris said of scoring in his return. “I kind of just blacked out there for a second, and then just got back to the game.”
Early in the second period, Norris was once again the beneficiary of a brilliant Batherson feed — this one setting him up in the high slot for a one-timer goal. On a night when his every move was meticulously scrutinized, Norris responded with a two-goal performance that erased any doubts about the durability of his shoulder.
Afterward, Norris was in a reflective mood as he was asked to describe his feelings following his impressive showing in his debut game of the 2023-24 season.
“Pretty long road and some long days. We’re finally here now and I think it’s one of those moments that’s weird. I think God is pretty amazing,” Norris said. “I don’t want to get too philosophical here. It was just a great night and I’m happy we won.”
“He’s an emotional guy. He went though a lot. A lot of bad days,” added head coach D.J. Smith. “I know how emotional he was when he got hurt. To get to this point and get a couple of goals here, he just wanted to contribute. And it was great he did.”
Norris even took a team-high 11 faceoffs on the evening, confirming Smith’s pregame assessment that his star centre would not be limited in any capacity. After Norris started training camp wearing a non-contact jersey, there was plenty of speculation surrounding his status in the weeks that followed. There was debate about placing him on long-term injured reserve, a manoeuvre that would have sidelined him for the entire month of October.
For his part, Norris says he completely shielded himself from the public debate around the status of his shoulder. And he says both he and the organization were in lockstep about his path to returning to the Senators lineup.
“I knew I needed a bit more time. Everybody here was great and they had my back. So I’m thankful for that,” Norris said.
Smith — who has handled questions about Norris’ status on a daily basis for the better part of a month — said that his medical staff gave him the green light to run Norris out without any restrictions on Wednesday. Norris finished the evening with 16:34 of ice time, which was second behind Stützle among centres.
“I think we took enough precautions. They wouldn’t have put him out there if there was an issue,” Smith said. “He was ready.”
And after Wednesday’s game, Norris conceded there was a mental hurdle he needed to clear, in addition to the physical one with his shoulder.
“Most importantly, feeling comfortable in my own brain. Once I got the OK, trying to trust yourself,” Norris explained. “It took a little time and you just start to feel normal.”
Even though they never trailed in Wednesday’s contest, Smith was not overly happy with the lacklustre start from his hockey club. They were outshot 12-6 in the first period and required some solid goaltending from Anton Forsberg to ensure the Capitals didn’t equalize the score. Smith said with the game teetering in either direction early in the second period, that’s where the Senators appreciated the return of Norris.
“He’s the guy, he gets one look — bang — it’s in the back of the net,” said Smith. “And now you got the game under control.”
There were a handful of other great storylines in Wednesday’s 6-1 dismantling of the Capitals.
Vladimir Tarasenko continued his torrid stretch, adding another goal and assist. The chemistry continues to look seamless between Tarasenko, Ridly Greig and Mathieu Joseph.
Jake Sanderson showed off his offensive flair with a one-goal, one-assist performance of his own on Wednesday.
The Senators even held Alex Ovechkin without a shot on goal for the second straight game — the first time that’s ever happened to him at the NHL level.
The only minor blemish to ruin an otherwise perfect evening for the Senators was the injury sustained by Artem Zub in the third period. Zub took a puck off the left side of his head and headed immediately to the locker room, but Smith did not provide an update on his status after the game.
Still, it was another encouraging win in the middle of a five-game homestand. To date, the Senators have won all three of their home games against Philadelphia, Tampa and Washington, outscoring them by a whopping 16-5 margin.
“We’re a lot of times dominating the offensive zone and really mature. And we’re different in the defensive zone, too,” said Forsberg after Wednesday’s win. “I feel like we’re very solid right now.”
Stützle works with Alfredsson
Norris may have been the first Senators player on the ice Wednesday morning, but Stützle was the last player off at the morning skate.
And that’s because Stützle — who missed Tuesday’s practice for a maintenance day — stayed on the ice on Wednesday to work extensively with Daniel Alfredsson.
Two of the last people on the ice?
Tim Stützle & Daniel Alfredsson. pic.twitter.com/l0hCaUiQFW
— Ian Mendes (@ian_mendes) October 18, 2023
It’s a video that pulled at the heartstrings of every Ottawa fan; the perfect marriage of past and present. A Hall of Fame talent sharing his knowledge with the next generational superstar.
“It’s huge. It’s awesome learning from him,” said Stützle. “He played in an era where he was dominating the game. Seeing him with the hockey sense he still has, it’s pretty special.”
Stützle skated with Alfredsson a handful of times last season while he was recovering from a midseason injury. But he’s eager to have Alfredsson around on a more regular basis after the club announced the franchise icon would be returning to take a player development role this season. Stützle said he’s trying to glean ways to be smarter on the ice using some of the tactics Alfredsson is teaching him.
“His shot is still pretty good and he doesn’t need to have the hardest shot. He just outsmarts the goalies. And that’s what we’ve been talking about,” added Stützle. “It’s great trying to learn from him. And when he sees open space during the game and what he thinks I can do better.”
(Photo of Josh Norris celebrating: Chris Tanouye / Freestyle Photography / Getty Images)