Practice and more practice

Welcome to the oddest stretch of the Ottawa Senators season.

They’ve got one game left on the season-high six-game road stretch, but it’s not quite so harrowing as that might suggest.

They’re back at home, enjoying a rare five days off between games – the only longer layoff is for the All-Star Game – before completing the consecutive string of road games Friday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Yet while they are enjoying re-connecting with their families, it’s not exactly time to kick back and relax. Senators coach Paul MacLean describes the layoff between games as a “good practice window.”

After flying cross-country following Sunday’s 2-1 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks, no one went near the rink on Monday. Come Tuesday morning, however, MacLean had them skating. And skating some more.

“Today was a little faster paced (practice), a little more skating than normal,” said Jason Spezza. “I think you use it as a conditioning week, especially since we have been on the road so much. There’s not a lot of (time) for training on the road. “I know, myself, I’ve got three workouts planned – and the practices.”

Spezza knows from experience that it’s impossible to mimic game action. Teams returning from a long layoff often struggle to find their rhythm and it’s no great secret that it takes time to re-adjust to time zone changes.

“It’s hard to play that first one back when you have five days off like that, so Paul (MacLean) wants to push us for a couple of days and then we’ll probably do some power plays, special teams stuff later in the week and kind of use it as a teaching week.”

 MacLean has already received plenty of accolades for his teaching skills through the first quarter of the season. The Senators are holding their own in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings, with a record of 10-9-2. When they win, they usually climb back into a playoff spot. When they lose or don’t play for a few days, they fall out of the top eight positions. It’s a far cry from being a basement-dwelling team in the Eastern Conference, as many had suggested before the season.

“Since we were picked to be 15th, I suppose we have snuck up on a couple of teams, but that’s not going to last forever,” said MacLean.

The Senators are receiving solid goaltending from Craig Anderson (with a timely assist from Alex Auld against Vancouver), particularly early in games and the penalty killing has become reliable.

However, the teacher clearly needs to provide a refresher course or two on how to score on the power play. Overall, the Senators power play ranks 5th in the NHL, but that says more about the potency in October than the impotency in November. The Senators have gone 0-for-8 with the man advantage in their past three games – they lost momentum against the Canucks due to a shaky power play – and have cashed in only two of 30 man advantage chances this month. That’s a mere 6.7 per cent in their past nine games. “We have to continue to progress in our game and we have some work to do on our special teams, again,” MacLean said.

CARKNER GETTING CLOSER: Defenceman Matt Carkner has been cleared to do everything at practice, but he doesn’t want to take any chances by returning too soon. MacLean says he should be back “within two weeks, if not sooner”. Carkner says he would have no problem going to Binghamton of the American Hockey League for a re-conditioning assignment, if necessary….Chris Neil, who has missed the past five games with an ankle injury, is expected back to practice today.

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