Senators on a hire ground

CHRIS STEVENSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:47 AM ET

Cory Clouston has made his points.

The Senators rookie coach takes a 17-10-3 record into tonight's game against the Montreal Canadiens and what he's done since taking over the club when Craig Hartsburg was fired Feb. 2 shows he's capable of coaching at the NHL level. His 30-game record -- more than a snapshot -- translates into a 101-point pace over a full season.

When Senators GM Bryan Murray made the decision to fire Hartsburg, the Senators had 17 wins in 48 games. Clouston got to that number in just 30 games.

The Senators' work ethic has improved under Clouston. Practices are longer and more demanding. The Senators are a tougher team against which to play. The debate can continue about what Murray has done to justify keeping his job or whether Jason Spezza should be traded -- those seem to be the most popular topics among the posters on Sun Media's Off The Posts blog -- but Clouston's ability to coach the club is not up for debate.

A closer look at the Senators' record with Clouston behind the bench:

* They are 6-7-1 against teams currently holding down playoff positions.

* They are 11-3-2 against non-playoff teams.

A generalization is they belong somewhere comfortably in the top half of the league, capable of holding their own against the league's best and regularly beating the rest. Clouston has brought a game plan that plays more to the strengths of this group of players, not that Hartsburg could be blamed for trying to bring a more defence-oriented approach. The Senators had slipped to 25th in the league in goals-against and trimming the goals allowed was a priority. Hartsburg did that; the problem was he did it at the expense of scoring goals.

You could argue Clouston has benefited from the pressure being off the Senators since they've realistically known for quite some time making the playoffs was going to be next to impossible after their horrible first half.

If you're going to make that argument, then you also have to consider he's been able to motivate, on most nights, anyway, a team that was pretty much counting down the days to the end of the season.

Assuming Murray is going to be back as general manager -- and until owner Eugene Melnyk gives his endorsement, nothing is certain -- is Clouston the man to lead this team behind the bench?

The question Murray has to ask himself -- if he is making the decision -- will be is there another coach available who is capable of getting more out of this group than what Clouston has shown in his 30 games?

Murray thought he had his man in Hartsburg and wound up disappointed with Hartsburg's reluctance or inability to make his players accountable or to work the players as hard in practice as Murray would have liked. Clouston has done that, so Murray, if he is making the call, should go with the devil he knows.

Clouston is reluctant to take any credit for the Senators improved fortunes. When asked if he was proud of the record, Clouston replied:

'PROUD OF THESE GUYS'

"I'm proud of the guys. I'm proud of the players. They deserve the credit. They're the ones out there working hard in practice. They're the ones out there battling in the games. If there's any credit, it goes to the players."

When asked if he though he had proven he can do the job at this level, he replied: "That's not my call."

When asked if he had an opinion on his ability to coach in the NHL, he said: "I believe in myself. I also believe in the players in the dressing room, too. I still believe in that group of guys and that's not going to change."

The Senators have four games left -- in Montreal tonight, at home to the Boston Bruins tomorrow night and the New Jersey Devils Thursday and in Toronto to wrap up against the Leafs Saturday.

Clouston looks like he's pushing the right buttons. The Senators didn't quit when they got behind against the Flyers Saturday and prevailed in the shootout.

"We want to make sure we keep playing hard, playing smart, playing right. We want to keep the team moving in the right direction," said Clouston. "Obviously, it is a challenge right now for the motivation. I thought we showed (Saturday) night our guys are still wanting to battle hard right to the end."


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