Exactly halfway into his first season as the Senators coach, Bryan Murray says he's learned a lot about his players.
For starters, they can play.
"We only have nine losses; I'm happy with that," Murray, whose squad reached the 41-game midway mark with Tuesday's thorough 7-2 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes. "But there are things here to improve on ... we have to be more consistent."
That should cause a chuckle from a friend of ours who works in the media relations department of a lowly Eastern Conference team, a guy who recently asked what Murray had been like to deal with, then quickly answered the question himself by saying: "Probably pretty good, I guess, when his team loses once every six weeks or so."
That's an exaggeration, of course. The Senators only went four weeks (Nov. 2-29) with one defeat, and they did that just once. But that they were hung with only three 'Ls' in the season's first eight weeks (22 games) is largely why they have 61 points and first-overall standing in the NHL today.
No other team has scored more (174) or allowed fewer (99) goals than the Senators, who have accomplished what they have so far despite injuries to the likes of Daniel Alfredsson, Wade Redden, Jason Spezza and Martin Havlat. If you had told anyone back in September that this quartet would have missed a combined 49 games halfway through the schedule (including five Havlat sat with a suspension) and the Senators would still have a 29-9-3 record, well, they would have told you to call a cab.
Come to think of it, when Murray says he expects improvement the rest of the way in, you wonder if maybe he shouldn't be driving, either.
One line he sees getting better, however, is a concoction created a few weeks back that produced the back-to-back second-period goals that turned a 2-1 game into a rout Tuesday: Peter Schaefer-Mike Fisher-Chris Neil.
"That's a real energy line, it has some good people on it," Murray said yesterday. "It has a tough guy (Neil), a boards guy (Schaefer) and a guy that's just flying and shooting the puck very well (Fisher).
"And each one of them is at a stage in their career where they can get better."
Murray especially expects a big second half from Fisher, who wound up with the game-winning goal against the Coyotes -- a ridiculous wrist shot Brian Boucher barely moved on. It was the 14th of the season for Fisher, who missed four games early on with a shoulder injury.
Fisher's previous single-season high is the 18 he tallied in 2002-03.
Can he reach the 30-goal mark this season? Quite conceivably, yes.
"Unless something happens, I see Mike Fisher having a better second half," said Murray. "At this stage, the way he's going, I think he's got a chance (at 30). Not to jinx him or anything, I just think it's a realistic number."
And if Fisher winds up with 30 goals as the third line centre on this hockey club, the Senators should be set for a pretty nice second half --and primed to go the most important weeks of the year with but a minimum number of defeats.
ICE CHIPS: The Sharks are 11-5 since Joe Thornton was obtained in a trade with the Bruins, and the rise in play of both their team and that particular player has been noticed in the Eastern Conference. "Obviously, when you're first traded you want to show you're a team player and capable of helping, and that you'll do whatever it takes to win," said Senators W Dany Heatley, who knows a thing or two about the subject. "I think Joe is trying to do that. I think in Boston, it was a tough thing. They had a tough start and were in kind of a lull. For him to get out and go to a young team ... he's a great player. Good things were going to happen." .... In the past three weeks or so, Schaefer has been cut by both sticks and pucks near his eyes. On Tuesday, he was scraped by the glass. But is he going to a visor yet? "Negative," he said yesterday. "You have to clean it too much." ... Schaefer would have liked nothing more than to see his brother Nolan tonight, but the Sharks sent the goalie down when Evgeni Nabokov returned from injury. "I've never played against him, not even with him, except for the rink in the small town (Yellow Grass, Sask.) where we grew up," said Schaefer. "But it's exciting for me to see him up (with the Sharks) playing in the best league. It makes me happy."