Twenty-eight games deep, and still we don’t know where the Senators are going to be in April.
We are getting to know who they are. For the first time in several seasons, the Senators have a clear identity, and it is far from the country club image of 2006-07, and earlier, when the team was an offensive juggernaut and part of the NHL elite.
No, this still-being-constructed group is more in the likeness of general manager Bryan Murray, on the job since 2007 – a relentless, in-your-face club marked by a streak of AHL Binghamton grads who don’t know when to quit. Let’s see where it leads.
“We’re pesky. And gritty. We never give up,” says Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, using words I’m confident he has not used before to describe an Ottawa team since his arrival in 1995.
“It’s a good feeling that way,” he says. “No matter what happens we never stop playing.”
That is a strong endorsement from one of the NHL’s more understated captains. Quietly, at least as far as the public knew, Alfredsson suffered through some difficult stretches for this organization as it heaved and tossed from coach to coach after Murray left the bench in ’07.
As a coach, Murray had a knack for making everyone feel involved, needed, from his top line of Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley to a grinder like Chris Neil.
In his first months on the job, new head coach Paul MacLean has managed something similar, winds of change bringing fresh air to the rink after three demoralizing seasons. That the Senators missed the playoffs in 2009 and 2011, and fell in the first round in 2010, was only part of the story. Worse, were the frequent nights when some high-priced talent seemed to give up without a fight. Perhaps it’s the infusion of all-ears youth, but no one seems to give up anymore whether the team trails by one or five goals. Can this attitude be bottled and distributed?
“Our coach has done an unbelievable job,” says Alfredsson, and remember, this soft-spoken Swede is a stranger to hyperbole.
“He’s got everybody feeling important,” Alfredsson says. “They’ve got a role. There’s a great atmosphere in the locker room.”
Not only do the Senators work hard, and have the nerve to battle back against an upper class team like the Detroit Red Wings, this Ottawa club is forging an identity by using a page from the Wings book. This makes sense for two reasons: 1. Who wouldn’t want to model a team after the program of excellence Ken Holland and Mike Babcock run in Detroit. 2. MacLean worked as Babcock’s coaching assistant in Detroit and Anaheim, so appreciates the puck pursuit, puck-possession game the Wings play.
On Wednesday, MacLean said his troops will be even faster once they learn to execute plays more consistently. A sloppy first period by Ottawa against the trapping Washington Capitals bore that out.
But if you don’t think players gravitate to this go-get-it style, you haven’t been hanging around Scotiabank Place this season, a more fun place to be than anyone could have imagined just a couple of months ago, at the dawn of a rebuild.
“We’re a skating team, we don’t sit back,” Alfredsson says. “We make mistakes, and the goalie’s got to make a great save but then we come back and get another chance at the other end. I think if fans watch games around the league they know we play an up tempo game and I’m sure they appreciate that.”
Almost as much as the players appreciate it. Across the rink on Wednesday night, the Senators faced a highly considered team in the Capitals, and yet which team envies which in the identity department?
Having already played poorly enough to get coach Bruce Boudreau fired, the Caps are torn between the offensive power they used to be, and the defensive approach Boudreau reluctantly adopted late in the going, now more fervently preached by incoming coach Dale Hunter.
Are the players believers?
Who knows, but it hurts to hear the Capitals described as a “chip and chase team” by winger Brooks Laich, the former Senators prospect.
And just what is the new style under Hunter, former NHL madman and junior hockey maven.
“It might sound weird, but I think we’re a little more passive defensively in the offensive end neutral zone,” Laich says.
“We try not to put as much pressure defensively around their blueline, but once we get to our blueline it’s very aggressive and we try to turn pucks over,” Laich says. “I think we’re more of a chip and chase team — keep pucks on the wall, we have big wingers so we want to win battles get pucks deep.”
Sadly, a Washington team that used to own the puck and damn the torpedoes, speaks of dumping and chasing and roll-me-over passive defence. But that’s what a few playoff setbacks will do.
Boudreau acquiesced and it still didn’t save him his job. Wonder how long Hunter will last?