Team starting to turn the corner

 

When newly hired coach Craig Hartsburg arrived in town, he summed up his demands for the new-look Ottawa Senators in a new-agey catch phrase.

 
 
 
 
 

Ottawa • When newly hired coach Craig Hartsburg arrived in town, he summed up his demands for the new-look Ottawa Senators in a new-agey catch phrase.

“All in! Whatever it takes!”

Unfortunately for him, the team’s totally inept play to open the season (2-5-1 in the first eight games) quickly rendered what was supposed to be an inspiring mantra into a throwaway Tony Robbins line.

The offence was OK, but even the world’s strongest GPS couldn’t locate the defence, structure or discipline, all of which Hartsburg was specifically hired to implement post-haste.

Yet a funny thing has happened since then. The players actually look like they’re buying in.

This is the Bryan Murray doctrine in action. Build a team around size, structure and grit and hope to win every game 2-1 or 3-2. What looked like a colossal failure through the first few weeks of the season has morphed into the kind of playoff-type game that Murray helped build for the Stanley Cup-winning Anaheim Ducks.

Of course, a playoff-type game is useless unless the team makes the playoffs. The Senators are far from doing that. They currently sit ninth in the Eastern Conference, with all but one of the teams ahead of them playing fewer games.

There are positive signs, however. The Senators allowed an average of 3.12 goals against over their first eight games. In running up a 4-1-1 record since, they’ve dropped that number to a mere 1.66.

Perhaps more important to Hartsburg is improved decision-making with the puck, something he addressed following Friday’s 2-1 setback against the Carolina Hurricanes.

“If you’re not good with the puck, your management with the puck’s not good, you’re hoping, and that’s what happened in third period,” he said. “We were hoping to win.”

Again, the numbers suggest his players are getting the message. They averaged almost 12 giveaways per game over the first eight, and just 6.5 per game since.

In the process, the Senators have played their general manager out of a bind on several fronts.

First and foremost is in goal. Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller allowed five markers in a Friday night overtime loss to the Atlanta Thrashers, which allowed Ottawa starter Alex Auld to take over as the NHL’s goals-against average leader (1.85). He also sits second behind Tim Thomas in save percentage at .936.

Meanwhile, Nikolai Khabibulin mentions are down 92 per cent in the nation’s capital.

If netminding was the top concern coming into this season, finding a puck-moving defenceman was a close second. The departures of Wade Redden and Andrej Meszaros were all the more glaring because Ottawa seemed totally incapable of getting a rush going out of its own zone.

By mucking up the neutral zone and developing a solid transition game, the Senators have managed to create some of their offence from turnovers that come with solid team defence. Getting out of their zone smoothly becomes less important when you can keep opponents out of it in the first place.

For all the answers the Senators have provided on their current run, many questions loom:

1. Is this team willing to gamble with a career backup? Auld has only played one full season as a starting goaltender in the NHL. He posted a 33-26-6 record in 2005-06, but it wasn’t enough to get the Vancouver Canucks into the playoffs. He is 14-9-6 since an early season trade to the Boston Bruins last season, has avoided giving up team-deflating bad goals and appears to give his new squad confidence. Barring a nuclear meltdown, it looks like the Senators are comfortable rolling the dice with Auld.

2. Who is the real Filip Kuba? Kuba, acquired during the offseason in the Meszaros deal, is on pace to shatter team records for defencemen in assists (Norm Maciver, 46) and points (Wade Redden, 63). His 14 assists in 14 games (already just 11 short of his career high of 25) had some questioning why he wasn’t included on this year’s all-star ballot. The knock on Kuba in the past has been his inconsistency. During one 20-game stretch with Tampa Bay last season, he registered just one assist and was a minus-18.

3. Can two lines score in the same game? The go-to trio of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson has been split up for a half dozen games, which has to be some kind of record. While the Spezza-Heatley-Antoine Vermette and Mike Fisher-Alfredsson-Jesse Winchester combos are contributing, they’re taking turns.

“We don’t seem to get all four lines playing their best, yet,” Hartsburg said Friday. “For a while there, Spezza’s line was carrying us, now Fisher’s line the last few games has been our best line, so, you know, your goal as a coach is to have everybody playing their best every night.”

4. Can Hartsburg keep his players’ attention for 82 games (or more)? This question will be answered in the doldrums of January and February. While players insisted ex-coach John Paddock never “lost the room” last season, lethargic, sloppy play on the ice suggested otherwise. Of course, Paddock paid with his job.

The next two weeks will help identify where the Senators sit in the Eastern Conference hierarchy. Four of their next six games are against two elite teams, beginning Tuesday against the Montreal Canadiens and ending with the first-place New York Rangers on Nov. 22.

The team had Saturday off and are expected to practise Sunday in preparation for that challenge.

Gerber upset over ice time

Despite his troubles on the ice, you can say one thing for Martin Gerber during his two-plus seasons as an Ottawa Senator: he’s been a good soldier and hasn’t rocked the boat over playing time.

He couldn’t hide his disappointment over sitting out seven straight games prior to Friday night’s loss in Carolina, however.

“It’s no fun, that’s for sure,” he said when asked if it was difficult to sit for two weeks.

Gerber acknowledged both the team and new starter Alex Auld have had a great stretch, but he sounded deflated nonetheless.

“You know, personally I wasn’t happy with (the amount of bench time),” he said.

Gerber’s one win in six attempts suggests it’ll be status quo for a while, though.

 
 
 
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