Sens turning heads with rise to playoff contention
Ottawa GM credits veterans, new coach with sparking team's dramatic turnaround
|Senators general manager Bryan Murray feels his team continues to make believers around the rest of the NHL with their continued strong play heading toward the NHL all-star break (Getty Images).
The Ottawa general manager is convinced the rest of the National Hockey League now views the Senators in a vastly different manner than the early days of the season, when they stumbled out of the gate with a 1-5-0 record and looked every bit the team most experts had predicted would languish near the bottom of the standings.
It's a much different — and brighter — picture today. Since that poor start, the Senators have posted a 25-11-6 record and risen to fifth spot in the Eastern Conference standings. They're nine points clear of the ninth-place Toronto Maple Leafs and solidly in the thick of the playoff chase. At 8-1-1 in their last 10 games, the Senators are the NHL's hottest team heading into Thursday's matchup with the San Jose Sharks at HP Pavilion (10:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200).
"I'd like to think the perception of the team has changed dramatically since September," Murray told reporters in Toronto before the Senators headed west for a four-game stretch of road games leading into the NHL all-star break. "Most everybody didn't know a number of our younger players that had played some games (last season), then went back to Binghamton. And these kids have come in and helped."
While teams around the NHL surely have a greater appreciation now for the likes of Colin Greening, Erik Condra and Zack Smith — all members of the B-Sens' Calder Cup championship team in the American Hockey League in 2010-11, all key contributors in Ottawa now — Murray pointed toward the improved play of the team's veterans as key to the team's turnaround. A year ago at this time, Ottawa was 17-24-7, some 17 points behind its pace in the current campaign.
"The part that's been the most important, by far, has been the veteran guys," said Murray. "The (Daniel) Alfredssons, the (Jason) Spezzas, (Chris) Phillips, (Filip) Kuba and (Sergei) Gonchar. Guys like that who maybe didn't have the greatest years a year ago, some of them have turned it around and are what we thought they would be.
"The big player in this is Craig Anderson, the way he's played, too."
Orchestrating it all is Paul MacLean, who has fashioned a young, exciting team in his first NHL head coaching gig. Murray heaps plenty of praise on the former Winnipeg Jets standout for his role in the team's rise to playoff contention.
"The thing with Paul is he communicates," said Murray. "He's a guy who understands what it is to be a player in the league and listens, interacts with them, trusts them ... and they trust him. He has a little fun with the game because it is a game, and the end result is a real good harmony on the team.
"Technically, he's very good and he understands how to play the game today and how to use players. Watching him on certain nights juggle lines to get it going tells me he understands totally what it takes game in and game out over a long stretch to get players to play their best."
Murray is convinced the Senators can maintain their strong play to the end of the season, which might give him cause to consider being a buyer at the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 27.
"We play too hard every night, everybody plays too hard every night to fall by the wayside," he said. "That's the biggest thing for me. This group appears to believe so much in themselves. Even (Tuesday) night, going into the third period, I knew we were going to win. I shouldn't say it that way but I just felt 'okay, we're back now.'
"We weren't very good early, but we found a way to win in the third period. To me, that tells a big story about what this group is all about."
Around the boards
Tuesday's Ottawa-Toronto telecast on Sportsnet East drew the highest audience for a Senators game in network history, recording an average audience of 359,600 viewers. That's 81 per cent higher than the season average to date (199,000) and topped the previous high of 327,400, set during a Senators-Canadiens broadcast on Nov. 4 ... Murray indicated centre Peter Regin (shoulder) is likely done for the season. "He hasn't had surgery, but it looks like that's what's happening here," he said ... Forward Jesse Winchester (concussion) isn't likely to resume skating until after the NHL all-star break. "Jesse feels better, but not to the point where he can really do a lot," said Murray.