Culture change sparks Sens' dramatic rise

BOSTON -- If Hollywood ever does a treatment of the Ottawa Senators’ season, they might just call it "A Season In The Clouds."

The Senators’ journey across the hockey rainbow continued Tuesday night as they edged the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins by a 1-0 count.

The win vaulted the Senators into fifth place in the Eastern Conference and to within a point of the Bruins atop the Northeast Division. It also marked the first time in five meetings that the Senators had so much as managed to earn a point against Boston.

Yes, the Senators have played four more games than the Bruins, so maybe the closeness is more illusory than real. But it was a win, coming a day after the trade deadline, which reinforced just how dramatic the Senators' rise to prominence has been.

A year ago at the trade deadline the Senators had jettisoned a plethora of bodies, including Mike Fisher, Jarkko Ruutu, Chris Campoli and Alexei Kovalev. Chris Kelly ended up in Boston and won a Cup, while the Senators seemed poised to meander in the hockey hinterlands for the foreseeable future.

But here are the Sens, under rookie head coach Paul MacLean, not just talking about an unexpected playoff berth after having gone 7-1-1 in their past nine games, but talking division lead, home ice advantage and NHL hardware.

“There has been a culture change around the rink and with Paul coming in his staff, the attitude and our focus in trying to make the playoffs right from day one,” Jason Spezza told ESPN.com after Tuesday’s win.

Culture change?

Do you think?

“We appreciate it,” captain Daniel Alfredsson said. “We have some guys, really young guys, that are playing really well."

Defenseman Erik Karlsson scored on the power play in the first period to provide the margin of victory for the Sens. Never mind All-Star (which he has been), is it too soon to assign the label superstar to a youngster who has eclipsed the competition among point-producing defensemen? Karlsson is now 23 points ahead of Brian Campbell of Florida, who has the second-most points of any defenseman. Karlsson also leads all defensemen with 15 goals.

Never mind limiting him to comparisons with his colleagues on the blue line, Karlsson’s 66 points put him sixth overall in NHL scoring. He is also plus-15, especially impressive given that a year ago he was minus-30.

Certainly Karlsson, who now has points in eight straight games, will continue to be in the thick of the Norris Trophy discussion and may even edge his way into discussion about the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP.

Already there has been some discussion about Jason Spezza and where the Sens big center factors into that discussion, too. His assist on Karlsson’s goal stretched his point streak to 10 games. And he is now fourth in league scoring with 71 points.

A year ago, there was significant discussion about whether Spezza would be traded at the deadline and, beyond that, whether he should be traded so the team could move more quickly into rebuild mode.

Now he is a pivotal figure on a team that looks almost certain to be playing hockey in mid-April when the playoff dance begins.

“It’s definitely, obviously, flattering to be part of conversations like that,” Spezza said. “We’ve been a real hard-working group. I’ve been thrust into a role where I have to play against the top lines every night and change my game a little bit. And because of it I’ve been rewarded offensively at times, too. I’m probably playing the best defensively of my career and I’m getting rewarded offensively for it."

And if we’re going to talk Hart and Norris Trophy, then you can also throw MacLean’s name in the debate when it comes to the Jack Adams Trophy for coach of the year.

When the Sens went through a period in mid-January where they went 2-7-1, they looked for all the world like a team that was ready to submit to gravity and sink beneath the waters, not to be seen again until next training camp.

But the Sens resisted that pull and now have seen their game once more elevated to the point where they are among the hottest teams in the league.

Part of that is their best players playing well, leading by example. But it’s also a function of the systems imposed by the coaching staff.

“I think early in the year when we had our problems and lost games, we had to figure out what type of team we were going to be, what roles guys were going to play, how we were going to win games,” Spezza said.

When they went sideways just a few short weeks ago, he said the feeling was they were close in spite of the losses.

“We didn’t feel like we were as far off. We felt like we’d built the foundation,” Spezza said.

MacLean said everyone is aware of the standings. They are a fact of life. But there is no sense around the team that they are locked into anything, he said.

“We’re still growing and building our team and our foundation,” MacLean said.

“We just try to continue to take it on a daily basis and a game-by-game basis and keep trying to get a little bit better.”