Senators proving detractors wrong
CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency
|Senators (left to right) Colin Greening, Milan Michalek, Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar celebratea goal against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y., Oct. 29, 2011. (JESSICA RINALDI/Reuters)
It was a spectacular pass -- the best stretch pass in the NHL this season -- and the approximately 100 feet it covered represents pretty much how far the Ottawa Senators have come from their first six games of the season, all but one a loss, to their last six, all of them wins.
The Senators were picked by more than a few to finish last in the Eastern Conference, but as November begins they find themselves as the hottest team in the NHL. With those half-dozen wins, they are fourth in the conference, just four points out of first.
There are a few reasons for the Senators' turnaround and improvement -- and reasons to believe it can continue.
The Senators gave up 30 goals in their first six games and chopped that total in half over their last six.
One of the first things you would look at in such a dramatic improvement is the goaltending, but I think the biggest reason for the Senators' turnaround has been the fact they have gotten much better in how they break out of their end. They're getting the puck out.
That great stretch pass by rookie David Rundblad Sunday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs -- he passed it from the circle in his zone to the Leafs' blue line, putting it right on the tape of Senators winger Colin Greening, who went in to score -- is the most dramatic example of how the Senators defence is moving the puck now.
It sounds like a simple thing, but you can't have success if you can't move the puck out of your zone. The Senators are spending less time in their zone (they've cut their shots against by an average of five a game from their first six games to their last six) and it's translated into success.
They are an interesting bunch on the blue line, their three duos all made up of a thirty-something veteran paired with a kid: Chris Phillips with Rundblad, 21; Filip Kuba with Erik Karlsson, 21, and Sergei Gonchar with Jared Cowen, 20.
Karlsson, in his third season, leads the way, either skating the puck out or passing it. He leads the Senators in even-strength ice time. We knew he would get points, but his defensive game is way better this season, allowing the coaching staff to trust him in more situations.
The 21-year-old Rundblad has made a quick adjustment to the NHL after playing the last three years in Sweden's Elite League. Cowan is a big rookie who looks like he'll be better in his own end, but knows what to do with the puck when he gets it.
The three veterans are all coming off poor seasons and the arrival of new coach Paul MacLean appears to have rejuvenated their games. MacLean has a lighter touch than former coach Cory Clouston and the vibe around the Senators is they appear to be a more relaxed bunch. Kuba, who also had health issues last year, is the most improved. Gonchar looks more like the guy we were used to seeing in Pittsburgh.
"He works them hard in practice. There's a lot of skating," said Senators general manager Bryan Murray, "but the guys are having fun. There's a great deal o communication, you can see that on the ice at practice and on the bench during games. He lets the players have their two cents. (MacLean) has taken charge and the players have to do certain things, but he's done it with a smile on his face. You can see the interaction on the bench. It's a big difference."
The Senators power play, with assistant coach Dave Cameron in charge, is the best in the league at 31%, thanks to the command of Gonchar and Karlsson and Rundlbad and Kuba at the points. One of the things the Senators like is how good they've been at recovering the puck after a scoring chance on the power play, keeping the opposition's penalty killers on the ice and grinding them down. That's nothing but hard work.
Up front, centre Jason Spezza looks like he has decided the Senators are now his team. He's been the best centre in the league through the first 10 games. He's got great complementary players in good skaters Greening and Milan Michalek. And Greening, usually the first guy back, is letting Spezza have a little more energy for offence during a shift.
So, can the Senators keep it up?
Their start has been good despite the fact half of their skaters are 24 or younger.
"The young guys should get better," said Murray. "Normally what happens is when young people get 20-25 games under their belt, they take another step."