Gordon: As the Turris line goes, so go the Senators

There’s a lot of diplomacy floating around the Ottawa Senators locker room these days.

Gordon: As the Turris line goes, so go the Senators
Tomas Fleischmann and Kyle Turris cross paths in the 2nd period as the Ottawa Senators take on the Florida Panthers in NHL action in Ottawa, ON, November 9, 2013. (Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen)

There’s a lot of diplomacy floating around the Ottawa Senators locker room these days.

On a few occasions last week, coach Paul MacLean made it abundantly clear that Craig Anderson is still his No. 1 goaltender — the latest declaration coming after backup Robin Lehner turned aside 26 shots in a 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers Saturday afternoon for his third straight win.

And a strong vote of confidence from the bench boss should be enough to slow the debate over which netminder deserves to be top dog in the capital … at least for a little while.

But try as Kyle Turris might to downplay his own ascent to the No. 1 centre role here, there’s no denying the fact that much of the team’s recent success is tied directly to the chemistry he has found with wingers Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur.

It wasn’t so long ago that the trio of captain Jason Spezza between Ryan and Milan Michalek was drawing comparisons to the Pizza Line, which caused free slices to fall from the sky like rain in the mid-2000s. All the attention those three would draw, the story went, would open things up for Turris to really thrive this season.

Instead, it’s 16-7-6 causing the opposition fits, especially when MacLean throws the NHL’s scoring leader among defencemen, Erik Karlsson, out there with them.

“It’s still the first quarter of the season,” Turris said after notching a goal and an assist in Saturday’s win over the Panthers to extend his point scoring streak to seven games and run his season total to 18.

“(Spezza) takes so much heat and so much attention from the other team and that’s something, to be able to do what he’s done, not just this year, but every year for the past 10 years or whatever, it’s special.

“We’re just trying to take some of the pressure off him and give him some better looks here and there, and he’s still taking the majority of the heat,” he said.

The numbers speak for themselves, however. Turris has led all Senators centres in ice time in four of five games in November, three times outpacing Spezza by more than four minutes.

Possession metrics like Corsi — which measures shots (successful, missed and blocked) for and against when players are on the ice — show the surface sloping toward the opposition net when they’re out there and back the other way when they’re not.

The more crude plus-minus rating bears it out as well: MacArthur is first on the team at plus-13, Turris is second at plus-11 and Ryan is third at plus-10. Only two other forwards currently with the team are in plus territory.

So, how are they able to control the play so well?

“It’s chemistry — we’ve been building on (it) every game and getting more and more comfortable with each other,” Turris said. “We know it’s going to get tougher as the season goes on, but we’re trying to support each other, give each other options to get open and we’re reading off each other well.”

For Ryan, it’s a matter of everyone “playing properly off the puck.

“(Turris and MacArthur) are generating a lot of stuff at speed, and I’m able to get in on the forecheck and kind of get some separation to get the puck back to those guys, so I think we’re just starting to figure out where each other like to be and to create offensively on line rushes and whatnot.

“There’s no real rhyme or reason (for) how long it takes to develop that kind of stuff, but I think for the past five, four or five games, we’ve felt really good together.”

MacArthur is the most underrated of the three — he was run out of Toronto by coach Randy Carlyle after being scratched in the playoffs — but Turris credits him for much of the line’s success.

“Clarkie’s unbelievable,” Turris said. “He does everything so well. He’s strong defensively, he’s got so much speed, good hands, good vision, great shot, he sees the ice really well. Give-and-gos, he gets open.

“We’ve been playing together since Day 1 of camp, and that’s what we’ve been really trying to work on is those give-and-goes in short spaces, create open space for each other and get scoring opportunities, and that’s what we’ve been able to do. And Bobby finds those open spaces so well.”

If MacLean’s tinkering eventually turns out another line or two that click the way this one has in all three zones, the Senators will be the contender many pegged them as prior to the start of the season.

That’s not to suggest Spezza has been totally ineffective — to the contrary, he’s scoring at a point-per-game pace (eight goals and eight assists in 16 games).

But even he acknowledges he needs to be much better in his own end.

“I think that it’s something that I’m working on quite a bit and trying, instead of cheating on the offence, which in the past I’ve been able to do and kind of get away with, try to be more patient through the middle of the ice,” he said. “In turn, I might not get as much offence out of it, but I feel, or we feel, the coaches feel and I feel, that it’ll make my game better overall and make us a better team.

“It’s at the point in my career where you have to make tough adjustments to try to become a better player and it doesn’t happen overnight, but hopefully it makes us a better team, and that’s what I’m looking for.”

Of course, the story isn’t near done.

The NHL season is a long grind, and the best players sustain their success. Turris isn’t the biggest player, and he’ll take plenty of punishment along the way. MacArthur has been accused in the past of fading as the campaign rolls on.

Spezza, meanwhile, has been a top centre in this league for the better part of a decade.

For now, however, MacLean appears more than happy to lean heavily on the new “big line.”

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