Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Those amazing Senators

MacLean main reason for club's shocking turnaround

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KANATA, ONT. -- The National Hockey League, just FYI, does not present an annual Where-The-Heck-Did-This-Come-From? award but if it did, the engravers would already be scratching these two words onto the trophy:

OTTAWA SENATORS

Now, before we go any further it's important to rewind to the early stages of the 2011-12 season, back when the Winnipeg Jets made their first visit to the capital on Oct. 20. At that time the Jets were 1-3-1 while the Sens were 1-5, struggling to find an identity under new head coach Paul MacLean and already leading the NHL in players-only meetings.

There was talk -- and of course it was premature -- of both teams being in the 'Fail for Nail' discussion about finishing last overall to grab the first pick in the 2012 draft, predicted then to be Russian winger Nail Yakupov of the OHL's Sarnia Sting.

My how things have changed.

The Jets remain in the Eastern Conference playoff race. That in itself is surprising many across the NHL.

But it's the Senators -- 25-15-6 overall and 24-10-6 since that meeting against Winnipeg in October -- who have the rest of the loop marvelling.

"We've been pretty solid since then," said Senators' captain Daniel Alfredsson prior to Monday's meeting with the Jets. "We had a tough start, for whatever reason, with the new coaching staff before we found our groove. Right now it feels like all the work we've put in has been rewarded. It's been a lot of fun. Everybody has been working hard in practice and games and we've got a good thing going."

And it's easy to connect the dots as to how the Sens have got this 'good thing going.'

All the players, to a man, point to the discipline, structure and communication skills of MacLean, the former Jet now at the controls.

In that working environment two veterans have found their games again -- Jason Spezza had 19 goals and 47 points heading into Monday's game; Alfredsson had 33 points in 40 games -- but this is a squad getting production from top to bottom.

"The coaches have had a big impact," said Spezza. "The coaches have come in and changed the atmosphere. They've pushed us at times and been hard on us at times, but also let us have fun and relax at times, too.

"The chemistry among the coaches and players... we're all a big group right now and that's why we're doing well and everybody's pulling the rope the same way."

Interestingly, when the discussion turned to MacLean during Monday's pre-game press conference -- and the fact he is a leading candidate for the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL's top coach -- the man himself actually blushed and then scrambled out from under the spotlight.

"It's the players that do everything," he said. "It's nothing about me, it's all about the player. I'm in charge of putting things together, but the players are doing it and they deserve all the credit.

"We give them the structure, we give them the instruction and how we want things done, but they go on the ice and they play. It's all them."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 17, 2012 D3

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