Opportunity knocks for Zibanejad

At the end of a rare hour-long Ottawa Senators practice on Monday, Mika Zibanejad stayed on the ice for some extra work. Zibanejed spent time deflecting pucks from assistant coach Jason Smith. After Smith left, Zibanejad took shots on his own.

Opportunity knocks for Zibanejad
Mika Zibanejad heads up ice as the Ottawa Senators practice at Scotiabank Place on Monday, February 11, 2013. (Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen)

At the end of a rare hour-long Ottawa Senators practice on Monday, Mika Zibanejad stayed on the ice for some extra work.

Zibanejed spent time deflecting pucks from assistant coach Jason Smith. After Smith left, Zibanejad took shots on his own.

When he had finally had enough and stepped into the dressing room, a good 20 minutes after his teammates had left the ice, he had a genuine look of surprise on his face when he saw the crowd of media waiting for him.

“I saw that and I was thinking, ‘are all these people waiting for me?,” Zibanejad said later.

Indeed, they were. That’s what happens when you land a dream gig.

After Senators coach Paul MacLean shook up his forward lines, hoping to spark some long overdue offence, the 19-year-old Zibanejad found himself as a centre between Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson at practice on Monday. That’s where he’ll be Tuesday when the Senators play host to the Buffalo Sabres, concluding a four-game homestand at Scotiabank Place.

“It’s a great opportunity for me,” said Zibanejad, who has one goal and two assists in his seven games since being recalled from Binghamton, taking Jason Spezza’s roster spot. “It’s up to me to take advantage of that.”

Zibanejad, who was originally recalled after Jason Spezza suffered the back disc problem which led to surgery, has seen his ice time gradually increase from game to game. He played 16:07 against Winnipeg Saturday and with Peter Regin now out of the lineup due to the chest injury he suffered against the Jets, the Senators will push for even more from him.

Right now, the Senators are desperate for offence. They came up empty in Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets and have scored only seven goals in their past five games.

No wonder Zibanejad spent a few extra minutes on the ice working on his game, no doubt thinking about the situation. He may never receive a better chance to make a difference.

“I try to work hard every day and make sure I get better and make sure I work on the little things,” said Zibanejad. “I’ve got to believe in myself and I guess they believe in me, if they let me play.”

One of those not so little things is faceoffs. Zibanejad is 5-21 on draws, a 19.2 per cent success rate.

Still, Alfredsson says he has seen an improvement in Zibanajed since he was recalled from Binghamton.

“Mika has used his speed well,” said Alfredsson. “He’s a big guy, he goes to the net well and I think he will fit in well with (Michalek) and me. It’s a great opportunity for some of the (Binghamton call-ups), getting the minutes they’re getting that maybe they wouldn’t have, especially if Jason (Spezza) would have been healthy. It’s a good test for them to make the most of it.”

Fact is, MacLean, who spent much of Monday’s practice yelling at his players — “Let’s Go”, “Faster”, “Move It” — doesn’t have many options left. Monday’s message to drive to the net hard and stay there in order to screen goaltenders and scoop up rebounds, is the same one he has been preaching for several games.

The other lines at practice featured left winger Colin Greening with centre Kyle Turris and right winger Jakob Silfverberg, left winger Erik Condra with centre Zack Smith and Chris Neil and Jim O’Brien playing on the left side with centre Stephane Da Costa and right winger Kaspars Daugavins.

“(Monday), we mixed them up and put them that way to see if we can get something to happen in practice and be positive and we’ll see whether it goes from there,”said MacLean.

“We’re not trying to have (Zibanejad) be something he’s not. He could play there for a period and half and perhaps Da Costa could play there for a period and half.”

Monday’s hard practice was a rarity in the shortened season. The Senators had an off day Sunday, allowing MacLean to push them hard for a full hour – practices have typically been 25-30 minutes – complete with some loud words.

“It was Monday and I hadn’t seen them in a couple of days,” MacLean said, with a smile.

Alfredsson says the workout was welcome.

“It feels good to have a practice, a full practice, where you can work on some things as well,” he said. “We’re not going to have too many of these, where you have a day off and then a practice before a game. It feels good. There was a good pace today and that should set us up for (Tuesday).”

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