April 22nd, 2024

Shane Pinto has sparked the Ottawa Senators since returning from his half-season gambling suspension

By Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press on February 28, 2024.

FILE - Ottawa Senators' Shane Pinto skates during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024, in Philadelphia. Pinto has been nearly a point-a-game player for the Ottawa Senators since returning from his half-season suspension for violating the NHL’s gambling policy. Pinto and his teammates are still eyeing a longshot run to get into the playoffs. And the 23-year-old from Long Island says he cares about wins and isn't thinking about his production. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton, File)

Shane Pinto brushed off his three-point game in Washington, which came in a 6-3 Ottawa Senators loss to the Capitals and ended their two-game winning streak.

He’d trade all his production victories.

“I’m not too worried about that,” Pinto said. “I just want to win games. It’s a big part of the year. We’ve got to start winning games if we want to get in this race, and that’s all I care about right now.”

It’s too late realistically for the Senators to make the playoffs this year, but that hasn’t stopped Pinto and his teammates from setting their sights on an improbable, long-shot run. More than anything, his play since returning from a half-season suspension for violating the NHL’s gambling policy has provided a glimpse into what the future could hold for the team in Canada’s capital.

Pinto has five goals and eight assists for 13 points in 16 games since making his season debut on Jan. 21. Ottawa has gone 9-5-2 during this stretch and has won seven of eight games when he gets on the scoresheet.

“He’s huge,” defenceman Jake Sanderson. “We missed him very much the first half of the year. He kind of came in and sparked us.”

The 23-year-old centre from Franklin Square, New York, on Long Island was in line for a potentially lucrative contract last summer as a restricted free agent. Then came the league’s investigation that led to the 41-game ban – the first for a modern hockey player – for the vaguely announced “activities relating to sports wagering.”

The NHL said only that there was no evidence Pinto bet on hockey. After practising for the first time this season with the Senators, he was unwilling to go into details.

Pinto signed a pro-rated contract for the league minimum $775,000, got back into game action on Jan. 21 at Philadelphia and has been a key reason for the Senators’ recent success, playing alongside captain Brady Tkachuk. Teammate Josh Norris said Pinto brought a lot of stability to the lineup.

“He’s been playing some great hockey,” Norris said. “He missed a lot of time, but it doesn’t really seem to me like he’s missed any time at all. He kind of just stepped right in and (is) just being a really solid player for us and has contributed a lot offensively, too. He’s a big part of our team and definitely a big part of our core and the future, so we’re happy to have him back.”

The Senators lost 25 of their first 41 games without Pinto, a tumultuous stretch under new ownership that included the firings of general manager Pierre Dorion, who was replaced by Steve Staios, and coach D.J. Smith, replaced by Jacques Martin.

Before back-to-back road defeats this week, they had won seven of their past 10, the product of better structure and defence.

“Everybody is clicking right now,” Tkachuk said. “Top to bottom, everybody has had some pretty good efforts.”

Martin, at 71 the oldest coach in the league and in his second stint running the show in Ottawa roughly two decades after his first one ended, believes it took a long time for players to grasp what he was trying to impress upon them when taking over in mid-December.

“They needed to add a dimension to their play and, to me, it’s a dimension that’s crucial to have a successful career (to) learn to play away from the puck, that’s required if you want to be successful,” Martin said. “If you want to win a championship or win the (Stanley) Cup, you have to round up your game and you have to make sure that you understand how to play without the puck.”

Pinto’s play has been central to that. On Monday against Washington, he forced the turnover that led to each of his team’s three goals. And his presence alone makes the Senators’ roster look more formidable, which should help them take a step toward contending next season and beyond.

“He’s brought us a lot of depth and he brought some life,” Martin said. “I think he’s a good character kid, a kid that his teammates really enjoy. “¦ He brings definitely a dimension that’s helped our hockey club.”

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AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl

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