When stars in Spezza, Karlsson, Anderson, and Michalek went down to injury, and with Cowen already on the shelf, experts across the National Hockey League were quick to write off the Ottawa Senators.
Without their top centre, top defenceman, leading goal scorer and starting goalie, how could the Senators possibly stay competitive in the lockout shortened season? While it would be easy to point to the outstanding goaltending (obviously a huge part), you can’t overlook the job this team’s leadership group has done under incredible adversity.
It starts at the top.
Head Coach Paul MacLean has instilled a confidence in this group that has helped them navigate their way through a difficult stretch. What fans see as adversity, he sees as opportunity. Young guys like Wiercioch, Zibanejad, Silfverberg and Gryba are given a chance to show they can play at this level. Regardless of age or perceived role, MacLean’s philosophy of the best players play keeps this team motivated and pulling in the same direction. His calm and relaxed demeanour behind the bench is reflected in his players. In situations where most teams would tighten up (down a couple goals early, up a goal late), this team sticks to the game plan.
And for that, Paul MacLean deserves a ton of credit and at this point in the season, serious consideration for Coach of the Year.
On the ice, the Senators have relied on their core group of veterans to help the team stay competitive despite the ridiculous run of injuries. You’ll often hear MacLean refer to the strong leadership group this team has and that includes Chris Neil, Chris Phillips, Marc Methot, Sergei Gonchar and the Captain, Daniel Alfredsson.
There are few players on this roster as consistent as Chris Neil. Every single night you know you’re going to get his absolute best. While he’s fought less this season, his physical play is a factor every night and he’s never afraid to defend a teammate.
Chris Phillips, who in my opinion draws some unfair criticism from fans sometimes, continues to be a reliable and calming presence on the back end. At this point in his career he’s more of a third pairing guy, but with injuries to Cowen and Karlsson, he’s played a bigger role than anticipated , logging 20:04 a game and even pitching in offensively, registering 8 points through 27 games.
Marc Methot, acquired in an off season robbery er I mean trade by Bryan Murray this off season, is another veteran presence that has stepped up through the injuries. Methot is as steady as they come defensively and is regularly deployed against the other team’s best players.
At 38 years of age, Sergei Gonchar continues to be a critical piece on the Senators blueline. Logging more than 24 minutes a night, and playing in all situations, Gonchar is playing way more than expected thanks to the injuries on the blueline. He’s another guy that draws some unfair criticism but he has played a huge role on the team this year. 13 points through 27 games and a key “puck mover” in MacLean’s system.
And of course, Alfie. At 40 years old, Daniel Alfredsson continues to be this team’s undisputed leader, both on and off the ice. Still hovering around the 20 minutes per game mark, and often surpassing that in close games, there are times this year when Alfredsson looks like he could play 3 or 4 more seasons. Scoring big goals, sticking up for his teammates, and playing with the enthusiasm of rookie.
Aside from ridiculously good goaltending, the strength of this group really is their team first mentality, with someone different stepping up every night. With that said, it’s important to acknowledge the vital role the leadership group as played in keeping the Sens in the mix through the first half of the season.
The Sens practiced this afternoon before heading out to Buffalo. MacLean confirmed that Ben Bishop will get the start for Ottawa. Craig Anderson is still recovering but has yet to do any actual goalie work. Milan Michalek will not play this weekend.
A reminder that tomorrow’s game in Buffalo is a 3:00 PM start.