OTTAWA - Nobody stands in the way when next-stall neighbours Erik Karlsson and Chris Phillips get together in the Senators dressing room for what’s become their pre-game ritual.
The way the team is going, nobody better.
Karlsson refuses to cough up when asked about the details of the routine.
“Top secret,” he says.
He also points out the obvious.
“It’s been working pretty good.”
That it has.
Since slamming the brakes on a seven-game losing streak by winning 5-of-6 and snaring a point in the other, Ottawa has been supplied excellent goaltending by Craig Anderson.
But what about that explosion at the other end of the ice?
Suddenly, these Senators, who we all said would have so much trouble putting the puck in the net, are turning into an offensive powerhouse.
Before Thursday’s games, their 190 goals were third-most in the conference, behind only Philadelphia (198) and Boston (194). Overall, they were the NHL’s sixth highest-scoring team.
And while Jason Spezza is having a large season, and while Milan Michalek has established a new personal best with 27 goals (with 20 games yet to play), and while Daniel Alfredsson is having an unexpected resurgence, and while role players have, for the most part, already matched or exceeded expectations, GM Bryan Murray believes this team has a legitimate chance to go on a long playoff run even if he doesn’t make any moves before Monday’s deadline — primarily because of the production it’s getting from the defence.
He says that good forwards often get shut down in the latter stages of big games, and that the outcome is often decided by a goal that was generated from the back end. It’s a sound argument.
To that point, the Senators lead the NHL in points from defencemen. By a significant margin, too. Their rearguards have racked up 150 of them — 12 more than the next highest group in Philly.
And much of the noise has come lately.
In the six games since snapping their slump, the Senators have scored 28 times, averaging more than four goals per outing. Those 28 goals were engineered by 76 points. Defencemen accounted for 27 of them.
“I think we’ve found our identity since then,” coach Paul MacLean said when asked to explain the season-salvaging turnaround. “We’ve gotten back to the work ethic based game where we play 200 feet for 60-65 minutes and we’ve kind of found ourselves again. We’re getting contributions from everybody offensively.
“The structure of our team play has been very good and our attention to detail in the defensive zone is getting better. Our goals against is getting better and we’re creating way more offence the way we play defence.”
Karlsson, of course, is grabbing plenty of Norris Trophy consideration. With seven weeks left, he has already equalled his season high in goals, with 13, plus crushed his P.B. in assists, with 47. Oh, and he has set a new franchise high in assists for defencemen, and by Sunday or Tuesday he is likely to be establishing a new mark for most points by an Ottawa blueliner.
With 12 points in the past five games, the 21-year-old Swede entered Thursday not only with 20 more than the league’s next best producer at his position, but he was also the ninth-leading scorer in the NHL.
“He’s definitely the best offensive defenceman I’ve ever played with,” said Spezza. “He’s probably the best in the game right now. The way he can jump in the rush, he reads the play real well and he’s growing more confident in his shot. He’s playing real good hockey.”
But Karlsson has been getting help, too. Sergei Gonchar hasn’t actually scored in 39 games, since Nov. 12, but the fact is he has chipped in with 30 assists, and his 32 points is already five more than what he produced in a disappointing 2010-11. Filip Kuba, who Karlsson so clearly missed when he was out with an injury, does have 22 points, or six more than his dismal output of a season ago.
And Phillips is simply en fuego.
Since stepping on the ice for a ceremony making Game No. 1,000 of his career, Phillips has four goals in six games. In the 74 games leading up to it, he had none. The “Big Rig” has also pounded in three on the power play. In his previous 999 games, he had 11 power play goals.
Whatever he and Karlsson are doing, the rest of the Senators should just stay out of their way.