Binghamton Brigade breeds success

Zack Smith, Erik Condra and Kaspars Daugavins will often do the lunch and dinner thing together and when Daugavins was first recalled from Binghamton of the American Hockey League, he roomed with Condra for a bit.

Binghamton Brigade breeds success
Kyle Turris #7 of the Ottawa Senators scores during the shootout against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on April 13, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Senators defeated the Penguins 3-2 in a shootout. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Zack Smith, Erik Condra and Kaspars Daugavins will often do the lunch and dinner thing together and when Daugavins was first recalled from Binghamton of the American Hockey League, he roomed with Condra for a bit.

Yet it might comes as a surprise that the trio isn’t always joined at the hip, sometimes going their separate ways away from the rink.

After all, they’re always on the same wavelength on the ice, reading each other like an open book.

They’ve been dubbed the Ottawa Senators’ third line, but that label is misleading. The Binghamton Brigade has emerged to become the club’s most consistent unit in the past month, delivering sound defence while typically being matched up against one of the opponent’s top two lines.

In Monday’s 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, they went head-to-head against Steve Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. Wednesday against the Washington Capitals, the assignment will be shutting down Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

All three have also been instrumental in the Senators’ improved penalty killing performance.

Then there’s the surprising offence. Smith scored twice in Monday’s win against the Lightning, giving him eight goals and seven assists. Condra has three goals and six assists. Daugavins has three goals and four assists in 17 games.

“We’re playing in all sorts of situations,” said Smith. “My linemates are pretty easy to play with. They are very skilled players. They see the ice great.”

Usually, the skill element is buried under the surface. When the confidence arrives, however, they’ll take a few more chances. Both Smith and Condra have split through the defence to score pretty goals in recent weeks.

“We’re keeping it simple, usually,” said Condra. “Every once in awhile, we’ll try something, but nothing too fancy.”

If the Senators 13-11-3 record has been one of the NHL’s biggest surprises through the first third of the season, the Smith line is a perfect representation of why Ottawa finds itself contending for a playoff spot.

All three have made the jump from the club’s American Hockey League team in Binghamton, part of the franchise’s well-documented rebuilding process. Colin Greening and Bobby Butler have also made the jump from the minors, but it’s rare for three AHL players to immediately discover success playing on the same line at the NHL level.

“We all came up the same way, working up through the minors,” said Smith. “That built the foundation.”

All three were sleeper picks in the NHL draft.

Smith, a 23-year-old from Maple Creek, Sask., was passed over in two drafts and then selected 79th overall by the Senators in 2008. His eight goals in 26 games is double the total he scored in his first 69 games. Suddenly, the comparisons to Mike Fisher aren’t looking so ridiculous.

Condra, 25, who grew up outside of Detroit, was taken 211th overall out of Notre Dame in 2006 and he’s living up to suggestions he’s a Chris Kelly clone, never out of position.

Daugavins, 23, from Riga, Latvia, was chosen 91st in that 2006 draft. Long overlooked within the organization, he was outstanding during Binghamton’s run to the Calder Cup championship last season. Recalled because of injuries early in the season, he has made it impossible for coach Paul MacLean to take him out of the lineup or for general manager Bryan Murray to send him back to Binghamton.

“This is my opportunity, right, so I have to play shift by shift and obviously, you’re a little nervous at the start and you don’t want to screw up your chance and you go 100 miles per hour per shift,” said Daugavins, who has since got the butterflies out of his system.

“I played together with Smitty two or three years ago and I played with (Condra) together for two years on the same line and we kind of play the same style like we played down there.”

MacLean says there’s no question that familiarity has carried over to the NHL.

“In the last 10 or 15 games, they’ve really come to play and they’ve really grown into an effective unit,” says MacLean. “They had an opportunity to play together in Binghamton and win a championship, so they know and understand how hard it is to win and what it takes to win. That experience has helped them adjust to the NHL maybe a little quicker than some other players. They’ve quickly developed into an important part of our team.”

They’ve earned MacLean’s trust. They’re starting games. They’re finishing games when the Senators are leading, protecting one and two goal leads. On Monday, both Daugavins and Condra were on the ice to block shots in the dying seconds.

While Smith is getting notoriety for his recent goal-scoring success – five goals in his past five games – he’s not forgetting about the line’s main focus.

“We like the challenge of playing against top lines,” he said. “That’s what we talka bout before the game. It’s fun and I think we’ve done a good job so far. It’s exciting that the coaching staff looks to us to shut down those lines.”

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