Forty games down, forty two to go. When the Ottawa Senators host the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night, they will officially hit the halfway point of their schedule.
And obviously with that much hockey left to be played, a whole lot can change. But as the Sens hit the turn, fans should take some time to sit back and appreciate the ride this team has taken us on to date.
Written off by many as a bottom feeder before the first puck dropped, not a whole lot was expected from this team heading into 2011. A rebuilding group full of young and inexperienced players, experts assumed the Sens would endure significant growing pains. Ugly home ice losses to the Avalanche and Flyers in mid-October seemed to be a painful glimpse of what was to come.
But Paul MacLean’s group persevered. Rather than dwell on those loses, the Sens bounced back, reeling off six straight wins and playing themselves back into the mix in the Eastern Conference.
Bouncing back and dealing with adversity has become second nature under MacLean’s guidance as third period rallies and dramatic wins have become the norm in Ottawa. The Senators lead the NHL with five wins when trailing after 40 minutes. I’ve said this before but this is a team that believes in the system they are playing particularly when they get down in a hockey game.
The Senators’ best players have been just that.
Jason Spezza has tallied an impressive 40 points to lead the club but is also contributing in other parts of the game. He leads the league in faceoffs taken (863) and is among the league leaders, winning 54.6% of the time, including 20 of 24 last night. Erik Karlsson has enjoyed a breakout season and leads all defenceman in scoring with 37 points and is 6th in the NHL in shots with 142. His dazzling skating ability and unparalleled confidence with the puck is worth the price of admission. Milan Michalek is 7th in the NHL with 19 goals and was leading the league until a concussion sidelined him in late December.
The veterans have led by example.
If the Sens were going to enjoy a bounce back season, they needed to see drastic improvement from Sergei Gonchar, Filip Kuba and Chris Phillips. Gonchar has been a calming influence on the back end, contributing on the power play and playing important minutes in all situations. Kuba and Phillips have pulled a complete 180 and have been a stabilizing force on a fairly young Senators blueline. While his numbers may not be where he wants them, Craig Anderson has given the Sens something they have lacked in seasons past- a consistent and reliable number one goaltender. Anderson is 4th in Wins with 18.
Role players understand where they fit in and are contributing on a nightly basis.
Players like Zack Smith (11 goals) and Erik Condra (15 points) are contributing on the offensive end but have also been extremely reliable in penalty killing situations and can take a shift at any point in a hockey game. Colin Greening and Nick Foligno have combined for 19 goals and are providing the team with much needed secondary scoring. Rookie Jared Cowen has looked like a ten year vet at times, logging more than 30 minutes in a game on a couple of occasions.
And all of them are following the Captain.
In a season that some believed might be his last, Daniel Alfredsson looks rejuvenated and has been a key piece in the Sens offence. Alfie has 28 points in 34 games and with back to back overtime winners on home ice, has captured the imagination of the fan base and the city.
When Paul MacLean took the reigns of this hockey club, he talked about making sure the Sens get a little bit better each day and as the calendar flips to 2012, that is exactly what this team has been able to do. The Senators currently sit 6th in the Eastern Conference with a record of 20-15-5 and trail the 5th place Penguins by a single point.
The fact is the Ottawa Senators have already proven a lot of people wrong through the first half of the season and really given this fan base something to be excited about. There is a certain "magic" around the Senators this year and I don't know about you, but I haven't had this much fun watching Sens hockey in a long, long time.
Will it last? Who knows. But considering the fight and level of determination this team has shown through the first half, would you bet against them?
- The Sens have a full day off today and will return to the practice ice tomorrow at 11:00 AM. Should have an update on the injured Senators at that point in time. The list of walking wounded now includes Sergei Gonchar and Chris Phillips (upper-body). Should also get some news on Jesse Winchester and Peter Regin at that point in time.
- Short notice but if any of you have spare time at lunch, head down to City Hall where the mayor is holding a rally to encourage people to vote for the five Sens on the NHL All Star Ballot. The indoor event kicks of 12:00 PM. All Star voting closes in a couple days so make sure your voice is heard. Go here to cast your ballot.