Big hits, big minutes have returned for Cowen

At the tail end of Ottawa Senators practice Friday, rookie defenceman Jared Cowen was receiving one-on-one attention from power skating instructor Mark Power, fine-tuning small details of his stride and edges.

“You like to keep up on things and keep working and there’s always little things you feel you can improve on with your skating,” said Cowen, who played a pivotal role in the Senators 4-1 win over the Eastern Conference leading New York Rangers on Thursday. The Senators will carry the confidence of that victory into Saturday’s game at Scotiabank Place against the Buffalo Sabres, who are in the midst of the desperate battle to earn the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Cowen’s extra work serves as a message for all young prospects, regardless of their role.

Cowen is, after all, the polar opposite of Erik Karlsson. While he has five goals and 11 assists, he’s not about offensive statistics. Rather, he’s about keeping opponents from putting up numbers. He’s at his best when he’s in the middle of the action physically, killing off penalties and clearing bodies from around his own net. As was the case against the Rangers.

In an early collision between linebacker-sized players, the 6-5, 230-pound Cowen hit Brian Boyle, the Rangers 6-7, 244-pound monster, one of five hits Cowen was credited with. Only seconds after the collision, Zack Smith scored for the Senators, tying the game 1-1. The Senators never trailed again, giving rise to suggestions that the hit was a momentum-altering moment.

“I thought he was a force,” coach Paul MacLean said following the game. “He used his size and body to separate people from the puck defensively. He really did a good job against their (board) game behind the net. Jared is certainly well on his way back to being the player that we want.”

Cowen, who turned 21 in January, has rebounded following a mid-season lull. A third of the way into the season, Cowen had grown into an indispensible part of the squad — he played a career high 31:42 in a 5-4 shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils on Dec.8 – usually serving as a partner for the veteran Sergei Gonchar.

Yet as the Senators hit their busy stretch, sandwiched around the All-Star break, the toll of so many games caught up to Cowen. There were rough stretches defensively and MacLean eased up on his ice time. In a 10-game span between Jan. 19 and Feb. 11, Cowen had a plus/minus rating of minus 9 and his minutes per game briefly dropped into the 13-14 minute range per game.

Gradually, though, he has become a big presence again. In his past 10 games, Cowen has a plus/minus rating of plus 7. He played 20:48 against the Rangers and 22:42 in the Senators’ 7-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday.

General manager Bryan Murray says Cowen, like many of his teammates, hit a wall around the All-Star break. “He needed a little bit of reprieve,” said Murray. “Young players, those in the their first year in the league in particular, usually have ups and downs. For a couple of weeks there, Paul (MacLean) backed off on him a little and that sometimes plays on a young guy’s head, a ‘what happened to me kind of thing. I was getting all these minutes’. Now, he’s back sharp again, playing better and getting into the rhythm of more ice time and more responsibility.”

Smith, who is emerging from a slump of his own, says Cowen is a smaller version of Bruins star Zdeno Chara.

“He’s not Chara, but he’s that kind of player,” said Smith. “He’s hard to play against. He’s got kind of a mean streak to him.”

Indeed, if an early save helps a goalie get into a game or an early point motivates a scorer, Cowen says landing a big hit in the opening minutes is what gets him charged up.

“Big hits, in general, they’re hard to do,” he said. “There is lots of timing involved, but they can change the course of a game. I’m not saying that’s what happened (Thursday), but they can.”

Cowen recognizes he wasn’t playing his best at one point and understands the reasoning behind the fluctuation in his ice time.

“It shows they have patience in me, I’m still in my first year,” he said. “I have high expectations of myself and I hope they do, too. (The slump) was also about how the team was going at the same time, but I know I’m a good enough player to get out of those situations.”

With the playoffs approaching, Cowen appears poised to be a big part of any success the Senators hope to have.

“I just feel more complete, more like I’m making the most of my minutes.”

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