Tuesday night in Long Island, on a back-to-back situation for the Sens, Kevin Mandolese made 46 saves, plus three more in the shootout, to backstop Ottawa to a 3-2 win over the New York Islanders in his NHL debut, his family looking on from the stands and agonizing on every one of those shots.
“It’s unreal,” Mandolese said after setting a club record for saves by a goalie in his NHL baptism. “I’m pretty speechless.”
So were the Isles after this setback in their push to climb into a wild-card position.
The previous night, it was goaltender Mads Sogaard making his first start of the season for the Senators, rising to beat the Calgary Flames 4-3 in overtime.
Don’t look now but the Senators are just seven points back of the Washington Capitals for WC2 and have three games in hand on the Caps. The Isles are one point back and desperately wanted that extra point last night. Mandolese and the Senators weren’t having it.
“Just confident in our abilities,” said Senators captain Brady Tkachuk, who scored a huge power-play goal for Ottawa in the third period. “Nick Holden says it best – you need to be confident in these situations and can’t panic. We’re not afraid to make mistakes, we just play our game.”
It doesn’t hurt that young centre Tim Stützle is on a Connor McDavid kind of run, with six points in his past two games and 12 in his last six (4+8). Stützle and Drake Batherson both scored in the shootout to seal the win.
“As a group, you’ve got to understand that we may be young but we work hard every night,” Stützle said. “Sometimes it’s good if you’re young, you can just run . . . play a fast game.
“In the NHL, any team can beat anybody on any given night.”
The Senators are taking that mantra to heart.
In their last seven games, dating back to before the All-Star break, the Senators have won six of seven. They are two over .500 on 26-24-3. And opportunity knocks with the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues in town this weekend, two teams out of the playoff picture.
Senators head coach D.J. Smith was rightly proud of his group.
“Just a gutsy road victory,” Smith said. “We get in at 2 o’clock (following the Monday game against Calgary), it’s Mando’s first start.
“He made all the saves you have to make. What can you ask for more than that? You work your whole life to get an opportunity and he made good on it.”
“The biggest thing – he wasn’t afraid of the moment.”
Wearing the name ‘Ella’ on his pads in honour of a young girl in Cape Breton who needed a bone marrow transplant while Mandolese was with the Cape Breton Eagles of the QMJHL, Mandolese stood tall all night. Ella MacPherson is doing just fine these days, by the way just like Rike Nooitgedagt.
So much for Mandolese’s struggles in the minors this year, with a .879 save percentage and 3.60 goals-against against a struggling Belleville team. He also played six games in the ECHL with the Allen Americans and showed well. Still, it’s been a journey, literally.
“It’s hard to put into words after the year that I’ve had,” Mandolese said to reporters in Long Island. “I’m so happy that it happened like that, with the number of shots – you don’t have time to think about it.”
Unlike Sogaard, Mandolese was not a high draft pack, but more of the typical late-round goalie picks that teams hope might pan out but don’t burden with high expectations. The 22-year-old from Blainville, Que. was selected in the sixth round, 157th overall, by the Senators in 2018.
As a 19-year-old, Mandolese had a sensational final year in the ‘Q’ with Cape Breton putting up a 26-8-1 record, .925 save percentage and 2.33 goals against. His minor league stats have been up and down but the NHL numbers, on a one-game sample size, glisten: a .958 save percentage vs the Isles, with a 1.85 goals-against.