The game plan calls for the Senators to be a Cup contender a couple of years down the road but, two months into the 2011-12 campaign, there’s reason to believe they can challenge for a playoff spot now.
In fact, there are at least five of them.
Being able to avoid injuries to key personnel, of course, will play a large role in their fate. So will what happens in other Eastern Conference cities. But, assuming that Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and the New York Rangers will qualify for the post-season tournament, that leaves three spots up for grabs.
December will be a big month, when the Senators play nine of 15 at home. Same with February, when eight of their 12 are at Scotiabank Place. But if they still have a beating pulse down the stretch, the final week should be interesting.
In April, three of their four games will be against teams counting the days until summer: The Islanders, Hurricanes and Devils.
After missing the playoffs last spring and two of the past three, here’s how they maintain the Top 8 spot they held the morning of Dec. 2:
No. 1 PAUL MACLEAN:
He’s been there, done that and knows what it takes to get back. Along with being an assistant with the perennially contending Red Wings the past six seasons, MacLean has a pretty good track record as a professional head coach. In his eight seasons as a bench boss in the minors, MacLean’s teams only missed the playoffs once — the year before he won a championship. Senators players respect and like MacLean. Most importantly, they play hard for him. After misfires in the hirings of John Paddock, Craig Hartsburg and Cory Clouston, GM Bryan Murray has himself a winner.
No. 2: SPECIAL TEAMS
The secret to success isn’t much of a secret at all. A good power play and penalty killing wins games. Teams have similar systems. Five-on-five, the average can beat the best. Taking advantage of a man-advantage, and surviving the short-handed situations, often spells the difference.
With Erik Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar manning the points, and Jason Spezza directing up front, the Senators have been among the Top 5 on the power play thus far. That won’t change. Their penalty kill was poor at the start of the season, but in recent weeks it’s strong. With young, learning players such as Zack Smith, Erik Condra, Kaspars Daugavins and Jared Cowen playing key roles along with veterans Chris Phillips, Filip Kuba and Jesse Winchester, the Senators will continue to get better.
No. 3: CRAIG ANDERSON
The Senators were supposed to have all sorts of trouble scoring this season, but with the emergence of a sniper in Milan Michalek and offensive contributions from three lines, that might have been a slight miscalculation by the experts. Where they were supposed to be solid — between the pipes — the numbers have been off. Only Carolina had allowed more goals than the 86 given up by the Senators as of Friday. Part of that has been the errors of a young Ottawa defence, but Anderson hasn’t been as good as he was after he was obtained in February, either. His .893 save percentage is the 29th best of goalies to have played at least 10 games. He needs to steal a few wins for the Senators. He needs to be better. He will be.
4. DANIEL ALFREDSSON
If it comes down to the need for an emotional boost or some added inspiration, the Senators will get it from No. 11. The still-affective Alfredsson will be eulogized at the all-star game in Ottawa — quite possibly as the Eastern Conference captain — where his young Senators teammates will be reminded of all that he has done for this franchise. If there’s a chance this is his last season, they will want to make sure they prolong it as long as possible. For his part, Alfredsson has produced many a magical moment during his career. He’s not going to hang them up without at least a couple more.
No. 5: BRYAN MURRAY
He may preach patience, but the passion to win still burns inside the Senators GM. If, at the trade deadline, the team still has a legitimate shot at the playoffs, he’s going to do what he can to get it there. In the upcoming weeks, you may hear Murray say he won’t part with prospects for immediate gains. To a certain extent, with regards to the blue-chippers, that is true. But his shelves are stocked pretty full. Murray has some goods with which to barter, and if he feels he’s another scoring forward or veteran defenceman shy of getting the team back to the post-season, you should know he’ll be doing what he can to get it done. Previous deadline deals have blown up in his face, but whatever you think of him, Murray is a smart hockey man surrounded by smart hockey people. Odds are on his side.