‘A work in progress’

Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean isn’t fooling himself.

‘A work in progress’
Cory Conacher #89 of the Ottawa Senators celebrates with Patrick Wiercioch #46, Chris Neil #25 and Erik Karlsson #65 after Conacher scored the game winning over time goal against the Phoenix Coyotes during the NHL game at Jobing.com Arena on October 15, 2013 in Glendale, Arizona. The Senators defeated the Coyotes 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean isn’t fooling himself.

In the moments immediately after Tuesday’s 4-3 win over the Phoenix Coyotes, which ended the bumpy ride of the season-opening six-game road trip, he acknowledged that the Senators are “a work in progress.”

It’s safe to assume that the roster which left Ottawa and began the season in Buffalo two weeks ago won’t be the same roster that finishes the year in Ottawa. The Senators need to improve and the start of the changes could come as soon as Thursday.

“We feel good about the six points, but we don’t really feel good about how we played in all those games,” MacLean said. “We found a way to get some points out of four of the games.”

Along the way, there have been some highlights, some lowlights and a few surprises, as well.

What have we seen?

– While the main story of training camp was about the potential for Jason Spezza and Bobby Ryan to put up big numbers together on a line with Milan Michalek, well, that’s gone out the window. At least for now. After plenty of trial, and a fair bit of error, it didn’t work out all that well. Ryan, in fact, looks more at home playing with Kyle Turris as his centre.

“We tried to have a ton of patience through training camp and at the start of the season to see if there could be some chemistry there (between Spezza and Ryan),” he said.

In the limited sample in Anaheim and Phoenix, however, Turris and Ryan generated plenty of chances of their own and MacLean’s impression was that both of them were “dangerous.” The bonus against Phoenix was that Cory Conacher also looked comfortable in taking Ryan’s spot alongside Spezza and Michalek. Conacher was on the ice for all three of Spezza’s goals. He then scored the overtime game winner while paired at forward with Colin Greening.

– Defenceman Erik Karlsson is logging the same big minutes as he did before — he checked in at 30:03 against Phoenix — but he’s not the same player as he was in his Norris Trophy-winning season in 2011-12 or at the start of the 2012-13 season, before the Achilles surgery. To his credit, he improved his defensive play against the Coyotes, but there’s still a hesitation in his offensive game. Remember when he used to finish some games with seven, eight, even 10 shots on goal? Against Phoenix, he had two shots, and he has 16 shots in six games so far. The good news for the Senators is that Marc Methot has been solid as his defence partner. As an added bonus, Methot made the slick play to set up Conacher for Tuesday’s game winner.

– It was a rough road trip for centres Stephane DaCosta and Jean-Gabriel Pageau and there’s plenty of speculation general manager Bryan Murray could take some action as early as Thursday. Could Mika Zibanejad and/or Jim O’Brien replace them, returning from their exile to Binghamton? DaCosta was a healthy scratch against Phoenix, making room for Matt Kassian to return. Pageau played 7:39 against Phoenix, an improvement from the 3:02 he logged in Anaheim, but he hasn’t looked like the same confident, energetic presence he was late in the 2012-13 regular season and in the playoffs. Da Costa and Pageau have struggled badly in the faceoff circle — Pageau was 2-5 in draws against Phoenix — and MacLean has lost some trust in using them in key situations.

–The goaltending of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner remains a strength, a necessity in the early going as the Senators have sprung far too many leaks inside their own blueline. While Lehner didn’t pick up a win while facing 97 shots against San Jose and Anaheim on Saturday and Sunday, he was spectacular in keeping the games reasonably close. Clearly, MacLean has the confidence to use him in the most difficult of situations, surprising many observers by giving him the start against undefeated powerhouse San Jose.

Anderson, meanwhile, has shown the resilience to bounce back from less than perfect starts.

In Los Angeles, he allowed a poor first goal, but kept the Senators alive after they fell behind 3-0 in the first period, making enough saves to get the Senators a point from an overtime loss. In Phoenix Tuesday, he again made the pivotal stops at the key moments, allowing the Senators to rally from another 2-0 hole.

The comfort for Senators fans is that in the most important position on the ice, the team has two guys who are more than capable of playing against any team at any time.

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