Scanlan: Western swing good test of Senators’ progress

For the Ottawa Senators, the New Year brings a new attitude.

Scanlan: Western swing good test of Senators’ progress
Chris Phillips (from left) moves in while Zack Smith, Cody Ceci and Mark Stone battle for the puck in front of Craig Anderson and Jason Spezza (R) during the Ottawa Senators practice at the Bell Sensplex. (Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen)

For the Ottawa Senators, the New Year brings a new attitude.

This has less to do with turning the page on the calendar. It’s more about the season-high four-game winning streak the Senators assembled over the Christmas holidays.

It’s been a while, but the Senators have more regulation wins than losses (19-18-7) for the first time since Nov. 15, when they were 8-7-4.

Having beaten Boston, Washington and Winnipeg on home ice, and then the Canadiens in Montreal on Saturday, the Senators will take their act on the road and test drive their new-found confidence against western opponents Colorado, Nashville and Minnesota.

Now seems as good a time as any for Ottawa to improve on its 3-9-3 record against that other conference.

What a difference a few victories can make. Hearts were light as the Senators left for Denver Monday afternoon, heading out a day early for adjustment following a fast-paced practice at the Bell Sensplex. Ottawa meets the Avalanche Wednesday, and first year Colorado head coach Patrick Roy, never lacking in confidence, reminded Senators general manager Bryan Murray over the telephone Monday just how good the Avs are these days.

It wasn’t long ago that Murray was being encouraged to trade somebody — anybody — and try to get his first-round draft pick back from Anaheim, as the Senators tumbled in the eastern standings. Almost overnight, the NHL’s Jack Adams winner, Paul MacLean, had forgotten how to coach (judging by fan discontent) and the team’s defenders had forgotten how to defend.

Now, everything seems just a little bit better. The Senators’ defence, while hardly perfect, has been slightly more sound. Goaltender Craig Anderson, slowly approaching the form he had last season, has won his last five starts to boost his save percentage (. 904) and drop his goals-against average (3.16) into respectable territory after a tough first half.

Finally, too, there have been uplifting performances by younger players asked to fill in for the injured, including Mika Zibanejad taking Jason Spezza’s place at centre and Mark Stone replacing Chris Neil on the wing.

While Neil skated on his own Monday and may need another few days to return from a leg injury, Spezza looked energized in a full practice. He’ll likely line up between Stone and Zack Smith against the Avalanche, while Zibanejad remains between Cory Conacher and Milan Michalek — as fans on Twitter cheer wildly. MacLean joked that no one in the organization would “let” the coach bust up the Zibanejad trio. As they walked down the hallway together after practice, best pals Conacher and Zibanejad were practically joined at the hip.

While watching his team stretch out in the first skate since Saturday’s overtime victory in Montreal, Murray had to be pleased he hadn’t pulled the trigger on a trade in haste. The time will come when this team makes a move, ideally to help a playoff push.

“One thing about getting old, you learn a bit of patience,” Murray said.

Spezza, too, will need to be patient as he eases his way back onto a winning lineup, not wanting to disrupt a good thing.

What did Spezza glean from watching the past four games, all victories, while resting a sore hip?

“We were finding ways to lose,” Spezza said, “and now we’re finding ways to win.”

Western clubs have been a challenge for all but a few eastern teams — Boston, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay chief among them. For the Senators, the belief in the room is that this is a different group than the one that incurred the losses to western forces during the formative stages of the season.

Encouragingly, on Dec. 16, the Senators handled the steel-tough St. Louis Blues 3-2. Ottawa’s other western wins came against the Jets on Jan. 2 and Phoenix Coyotes way back on Oct. 15.

One of the Senators’ upcoming western opponents, the Minnesota Wild, received some horrible news Monday. Captain Mikko Koivu has undergone ankle surgery and is expected to miss at least a month of action. That will also keep Koivu from representing Finland at the Sochi Olympics.

Injuries have not been an issue for Ottawa, although the change in roles brought about by the Spezza and Neil injuries has inspired the younger forwards.

If the Senators have been inconsistent, the one consistently assembled line of Kyle Turris, Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur will once again be called upon to provide offence.

“It’s going to be a good challenge,” Turris said of the prolonged three-game swing (the Senators don’t return until Jan. 14). “We’ve been playing better lately and it’s going to be a better test for us now that we have kind of gotten on a bit of a roll.”

MacLean feels the difference, which he attributes to recent victories, but also to overall improved play dating back to the first of December.

“You’re playing better, so you feel better,” MacLean says. “Everything’s looser and you’re not quite as tight and tentative as you were before you started to have success.”

The best teams have confidence home and away, against anyone.

“We’re not considered an elite team yet,” MacLean says, “but that’s what we’re working towards.”

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