Time to give Senators a little love

January, 25, 2010

I explained to Bryan Murray that it was time for ESPN.com to give his Ottawa Senators some love, and the veteran GM, perhaps with a hint of sarcasm, welcomed the phone call Monday.

"We don't get much, so that'd be good," Murray said.

No, the Sens don't get a lot of attention, not with the Toronto Maple Leafs (no matter how bad they are) dwarfing them in their own province and the Montreal Canadiens imposing a huge shadow just two hours east. It was never going to be easy competing with those two Original Six brothers.

But the Sens clearly are playing the best hockey of the three teams, a six-game winning streak vaulting them into fifth place in the Eastern Conference with a five-point cushion over the cluster beneath them.

"We lost five in a row before that," Murray said. "That's the NHL today. You can go on streaks either way. As you look around the league, it's very hard if you're losing three or four key people in particular, and we were at seven guys out at one point. We've still got two, three guys out, but obviously getting our first-line players back, and Daniel Alfredsson in particular, has made a big difference."

Both Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, Ottawa's two offensive catalysts, are now back. Starting goalie Pascal Leclaire (concussion) remains out; so is shut-down defenseman Anton Volchenkov (upper body). The Sens will try to extend their streak to seven -- and they'll earn it if they do -- against the powerhouse New Jersey Devils in Ottawa on Tuesday night.

Just two weeks ago, the Sens hit the low point of the season with back-to-back losses on Jan. 10 and 12, when they lost by a combined 10-2 score in Carolina and Atlanta. That's when Murray and coach Cory Clouston chatted.

"We played terrible in Carolina and Atlanta," Murray said. "We had lots of discussion at that time, Cory and I did. We let Eli Wilson go as the goaltending coach; we didn't think our goaltending was where it could be or should be. Then we went into New York with a real good effort [a 2-0 win Jan. 14]. Then Alfie came back, and from then on we started getting players back."

Alfredsson has nine points (5-4) in the five games since his return, reminding all of us yet again that even at age 37, he is the straw that stirs the drink in Canada's capital. He still leads the team in scoring with 40 points (14-26) in 42 games despite missing 11 contests with a shoulder injury.

But there's another man who deserves credit as well: Clouston. It was almost a year ago, on Feb. 2, that Murray elevated the little-known native of Viking, Alberta, from the AHL ranks to replace Craig Hartsburg behind the Ottawa bench. Like almost everyone in the NHL media world, my reaction was: Cory who? Nobody knew anything about him. The immediate reaction among many was the Sens were going on the cheap and that's why they promoted a guy from within the organization.

I remember asking Murray that very question last February, and the Sens' GM set me straight: He believed Clouston was his guy, no matter what anybody else thought. He's been proven right, and then some. Clouston's NHL coaching record now stands at 47-32-8 in the 87 games since he's taken over, good for a .586 win percentage.

"He's very disciplined, very structured," Murray said of his 40-year-old coach. "He runs a practice with lots of repetition. He spends a lot of time in game preparation. He's a good presenter to the players. He's not afraid to ruffle feathers if he has to. He's very strong in his convictions of how the team has to play."

Considering the massive injury list the Sens have been faced with this season, not to mention the forced departure of 50-goal man Dany Heatley this past summer, I'm not sure many people would have handed Ottawa a playoff spot. But if the season ended today, the Sens would open up the playoffs against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the 4-5 matchup.

What strikes me about this edition of the Sens is the team concept is very strong. For a long time over the past decade, this team had oodles of talent, but I always believed it was top-heavy in terms of relying on certain players. Clouston has given more people roles, and I think that's a big reason the Sens have survived an injury-riddled season; the team's success isn't reliant on a handful of players like in the past. It's truly a team.

"I think that's where the whole program has been with Cory," Murray said. "Today in the league, you have your stars, but you have lots of guys that have to play a particular way to contribute. And Cory has been able to do that. Now we feel we have four lines up front, six defensemen that can all play the right way every night. I think that gives us a chance every night. That's a big reason we are able to compete with everybody."

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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