Senators notebook: MacLean praises Zibanejad for improving fitness, attitude

Mika Zibanejad turns 20 next Thursday, but the way Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean sees it, the rookie centre turned into an adult over the past eight months.

Senators notebook: MacLean praises Zibanejad for improving fitness, attitude
Mika Zibanejad of the Ottawa Senators jumps out of the way of the puck that beat Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers during third period of NHL action at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa, March 28, 2013. Guillaume Latendresse scored on the play. Photo by Jean Levac/OTTAWA CITIZEN

Mika Zibanejad turns 20 next Thursday, but the way Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean sees it, the rookie centre turned into an adult in the past eight months.

MacLean bluntly says that Zibanejad was out of shape and had poor focus when he began the 2012-13 season with Binghamton in the American Hockey League.

“His conditioning wasn’t very good, his attitude wasn’t very good and the way he played wasn’t very good,” MacLean said.

Yet after a tough three months in Binghamton, including a series of health issues (whiplash, impacted wisdom teeth) and a healthy dose of tough love from Binghamton coach Luke Richardson, Zibanejad discovered what a professional hockey player’s commitment to the game is all about.

“He has grown not only as a hockey player, but as a young man,” said MacLean. “When guys are 19-20 years old, those are the kinds of changes you expect. I expected that from my sons when they were that age. You have to grow up and stop being kids and you’ve got to be a man. Sometimes, that’s hard to get past that curve and for some of us, we never do.”

All that has translated into a more confident, more productive player, in line with what the Senators expected when they selected him sixth overall in the 2011 NHL entry draft. While Zibanejad was held without a point in Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to Tampa, he had picked up at least one point in seven of his previous eight games. The line of Cory Conacher, Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg was Ottawa’s best against the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers. For the season, he has six goals and 13 assists in 33 games, sixth in the league in points per game among rookies.

“The patience we showed is starting to show great dividends,” said MacLean.

FOR NEIL, LESS IS MORE

Chris Neil is the first to acknowledge that the club’s frustration has meant players are gripping their sticks a little tighter, but he insists the Senators are close to turning the corner from their current five-game losing streak.

“We have to get our swagger back, if that’s what you want to call it,” said the Senators tough guy, who figures to have his hands full Thursday against the always physical Philadelphia Flyers.

“We gave ourselves a chance to win both games (in Florida),” he said. “It’s one of those things where you’re trying to find ways to do the little extra, and sometimes less is more. It’s not from lack of effort. We always use that expression that less is more.”

By that, Neil means the Senators have to simplify their game, focussing on making the basic, easy plays, rather than the special, highlight-type plays.

In that sense, he was echoing what defenceman Chris Phillips said immediately after Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to Tampa Bay.

GONCHAR REGRETS PENALTIES…SORT OF

Tuesday was a tough night for Sergei Gonchar. He was in the penalty box for two of Tampa’s three goals, including the game winner by Steve Stamkos late in the third period and the 5-on-3 goal by Vincent Lecavalier early in the second period.

The late tripping penalty was unavailable, as Gonchar was caught up ice.

His slash on Richard Panik, however, wasn’t necessary and it had coach Paul MacLean steaming after the game. The slashing call, coupled with the faceoff violation penalty to Peter Regin – a terrible call which video review showed clearly, put the Senators down two men.

So, if Gonchar could do it all over again, he wouldn’t have slashed Panik. Then again, he wasn’t that sorry, claiming Panik embellished the stickwork.

“Believe me, it wasn’t that hard, I didn’t try to kill the guy,” Gonchar said. “I just let him know…if you look at the play, I hit him and he went down like he was killed. I think it was more diving than anything. Obviously, I would like to take it back, but at the same time, I don’t think it was as bad as it was looking.”

 

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