It was a long, hot summer for the Ottawa Senators after failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 12 seasons last spring.
The expectations were lofty for coach Cory Clouston entering 2009-10 and, to his credit, he's produced and made his players believers. Pretty amazing stuff when you consider the team's perennial star goal-scorer -- Dany Heatley -- demanded a trade in September. Instead of wilting, the Senators have gone from 11th in the Eastern Conference to fifth this season.
The biggest challenge for Clouston was being able to spread the offense over three lines while having his players believe that going out and adhering to a structured, tight-checking style would pay dividends. The Senators would ultimately receive 12-or-more goals from nine different players to finish with 220 goals for the season. That's up from the six players who could only muster 12-or-more in 2008-09 when the club produced 217 goals.
Mike Fisher (25 goals, 53 points), Milan Michalek (22 goals, 34 points) and Chris Kelly (15 goals, 32 points) have taken some of the offensive burden off the shoulders of Jason Spezza and captain Daniel Alfredsson has been a huge bonus. The loss of Alexei Kovalev (18 goals, 49 points) to a left knee injury last week will hurt, as the team's prized free-agent acquisition over the summer has produced 44 goals and 98 points in 116 career playoff games.
The biggest difference this season, though, and the reason the Senators will present a stern challenge to any team in the postseason, is their commitment to the back end.
The Senators are big and mean along the blue line, particularly after the addition of 6-foot-6, 245-pound Andy Sutton in a trade with the New York Islanders on March 2. Sutton might just be the most physically-imposing defender the Senators have had since the days of Zdeno Chara. If you take away the 5-11, 175-pound rookie Erik Karlsson, the Senators blue line averages 6-3, 220 pounds.
Chris Phillips (6-3, 216) has thrived in playoffs' past. When the team reached the Cup Final in 2007, Phillips recorded 56 blocked shots, 49 hits and 10 takeaways in 20 postseason games.
And while their top defender, veteran Filip Kuba, will be sidelined at least a month after undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back, the team remains a threat blocking shots and dishing out big hits and will continue playing that way in attempt to frustrate all playoff opponents.
The Senators possess all the talent and the intangibles necessary for a long and prosperous playoff run.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com