There are a couple of ways to describe the Ottawa Senators' season.
One would be to call it surprising. They weren't widely expected to get back to the playoffs under a still-unproven young coach and after their best goal scorer hissy-fitted his way out of town over the summer.
|Cory Clouston has had Ottawa moving in the right direction since taking over as coach last February. (Getty Images)|
But you have to put the two together to get a clearer sense of why Ottawa is heading back to the playoffs after breaking a streak of 12 consecutive appearances last season. And why this version of the Senators is starting to look a lot like the best of that bunch, the team that went to the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals.
Ottawa lost badly in its first championship series to a superior Anaheim Ducks team, and that naturally overshadowed the fact they had gotten that far after being below the playoff line at Christmas. But that Senators team did turn things around in a hurry in the second half and built up enough momentum to ultimately become the best of what was a less than overwhelming Eastern Conference.
That's not a claim you can make about the Senators right now, not with the Washington Capitals heading into the playoffs with the Presidents' Trophy, a franchise record for wins and the best player in the game on a mission to win the Stanley Cup. But until they prove otherwise, the Capitals appear to be playoff-vulnerable because of their goaltending and defense, and beyond them the conference has to be considered wide open.
Clearly Washington is the only team that has stood out among the East pack for anything longer than a brief spurt. Five teams still in play for the East's final two or three playoff spots will likely need the final weekend to decide who sneaks in.
In the meantime, Ottawa seems to be quietly lurking in the weeds, shifting its game into a higher gear during the second half, much as it did to set up the 2007 run. Behind some unexpectedly strong goaltending from Brian Elliott, the Senators locked up the fifth seed a week early and nearly managed to snatch the Northeast Division title from the Buffalo Sabres. All this came after muddling their way through the early part of the season with key players like captain Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Filip Kuba spending extended periods on the injured list.
The Senators started getting their players back in January, spreading around the offense and tightening up the defense, and in the middle of the month suddenly turned a five-game losing streak into an 11-game winning run that sent them into the Olympic break as one of the league's hottest teams. Ottawa had a stomach flu bug running through the dressing room after the Games and lost eight of nine games, but the Sens rebounded with a six-game winning streak and made it seven out of eight with an easy 5-2 win over the hapless Florida Panthers on Tuesday night.
That sets up a first round against either the New Jersey Devils or Pittsburgh Penguins, whichever team fails to win the Atlantic Division, but Alfredsson says the matchup isn't that important.
"I think we can match up to anybody or any style of play," Alfredsson said after celebrating his 1,000th game with the win against the Panthers. "What matters is going into the playoffs with the right frame of mind and you get that by winning and by knowing you're playing well.
"We feel good because we have been playing really well for the last two months, except maybe when we had the stomach flu after the Olympics and didn't have our legs. We lost that intensity for a while, but I think we kind of found things again lately."
Maybe even a little longer than that. The Senators have been on the right track since Cory Clouston became coach in early February last season, elevated from the minors in a last-ditch effort by general manager Bryan Murray to save a team that had been imploding under his previous hire, Craig Hartsburg. And the impact was almost immediate, with Clouston doing what some other former AHL coaches like Bruce Boudreau, John Stevens and Dan Bylsma did in their first NHL shots.
Ottawa fell well short of the playoffs, but the Senators went 19-11-4 under Clouston after being 17-24-7 when he arrived. Along the way Clouston butted heads with scoring star Dany Heatley over playing time, which led to the scoring star's eventual trade. But the clash showed who was in charge to a team that had often taken things for granted in previous seasons under several different coaches. The effect has been apparent in Clouston's follow-up season.
"Cory's basically all business," veteran center Mike Fisher said. "He obviously takes the job very seriously and he demands a lot from us, but he's very clear and fair.
"He's done a good job of communicating to us what he wants and the system, and he's instilled the kind confidence you need to win games."
And apparently at the right time, too.