Monday, February 15, 2010

Surging Senators


Who woke up the Ottawa Senators?

Ottawa enters the Olympic break as probably the hottest team in the league, given Washington's stumble the last week. The Senators have won 14 out of their last 16 games and have vaulted past a slumping Buffalo team for first place in the Northeast Division. They went into the break scoring three goals in the third period to turn a two-goal deficit into a 4-3 victory over the Islanders.

Their success is not that big a surprise, either.

Once Cory Clouston took over the head coaching job from Craig Hartsburg last Feb. 1, Ottawa became a different team. Rather than be in contention for a top-five selection in the 2009 draft, Ottawa made a spirited run at making the playoffs before the last couple weeks of the season derailed things, and the Senators finished 10 points out of the No. 8 position.

Despite the disappointing end, the Senators really turned their season around and played significantly better. At the time of the coaching change, Ottawa was 13th in the East and a good bet to finish lower. The Senators finished 11th.

Before Dany Heatley's demand to be traded, there were expectations that this year would be different and the Senators would begin and end the season in postseason positioning. General manager Bryan Murray traded Antoine Vermette to Columbus for goalie Pascal Leclaire, who was second in the NHL in 2007-08 with nine shutouts. If Leclaire stayed healthy, Ottawa would be in good shape. He hasn't, but Brian Elliott has been there to carry the team, much like he did last season.

Then the Heatley trade happened, and part of the return for one of the game's premiere goal scorers was Jonathan Cheechoo, at the time a bad acquisition and even worse now that he's been so awful he's been demoted to the AHL. Getting Milan Michalek, who is tied for the team lead with 20 goals despite missing a few games with an injury, helped soften the blow. For a fair return, both players had to contribute in the 20 to 25 goal range. Michalek's delivering. Cheechoo hasn't and probably won't.

The one player who seemed to miss Heatley the most was Jason Spezza. He was so good in the early going that he had all of one goal before Thanksgiving. But now he's learned how to play without Heatley, and he's been nothing short of scorching since the middle of December.

In Spezza's last 13 games, he's scored 12 goals, failing to score just twice, with four power play goals and three game-winners. He'd suffered an injury that kept him out from Dec. 16 to Jan. 21, but since his return, Ottawa is 9-2.

Alexei Kovalev has woken up. After formerly being in the running for worst free agent signing after registering just seven goals and 22 points in 38 games, Kovalev is on a torrid pace in 2010. In 22 games since the calendar turned, Kovalev has 25 points, including 10 goals.

At age 37, Daniel Alfredsson continues to get it done, with 49 points in 52 games. Mike Fisher has bounced back from a down season and is on pace for a career year. He's tied with Michalek for 20 goals, three away from a personal best, and has 44 points, four off his peak achieved in 2006-07. Fisher has been one of the most consistent Senators, apart from a brief slump after he became engaged to Carrie Underwood.

The stars have gotten hot at the same time, but Ottawa is also getting valuable contributions from role players. Guys like Peter Regin, Chris Kelly and Jarkko Ruutu. One more goal from Regin gives each of those three players 10 goals.

Defensemen Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov continue to make life miserable on opposing forwards. Just ask Washington, after Volchenkov blocked an incredible 11 shots. He's fifth in the league in that category.

About the only thing not working for Ottawa is its power play, which ranks just 27th in the league. The penalty killing is ninth-best. If that power play gets on track, Ottawa will be even more deadly.

The scary thing is, with the possible exception of Elliott, I don't think anyone on the Senators is playing over his head. I think this is more the norm and what fans and management expected out of their team. They struggled when Spezza and Alfredsson were injured at the same time, but they're making up for lost time.

One other weakness is scoring from the blue line. It's Filip Kuba and that's about it, despite some surprising contributions from Phillips.

Still, the Senators are a really dangerous team, and while they probably can't continue this pace, they're not a team someone will want to deal with in a seven-game series.

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