After a 74-point campaign in 2010-11 that triggered a rebuilding process, players came into 2011-12 with a unique set of expectations.
"It's one of those things. I don’t think we had any expectations," said defenseman Matt Carkner, who has been with the Senators since 2008. "Obviously it's great right now. We know what we're capable of now, so it's kind of expected to perform the way we are now. It's a big bonus that we're putting ourselves in a good position.
"I think everyone was a little harsh on us to judge us so early."
The standings prove Carkner is correct about that.
The Senators are 23-15-6, good for 52 points and fifth place in the Eastern Conference heading into a showdown with the League-leading New York Rangers on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. Ottawa has won six of its last seven, including a 5-1 victory in Pittsburgh on Tuesday that started a 10-game stretch in which nine of the games will be played on the road.
It's a major turnaround for a team that mostly eschewed the free-agent frenzy this summer, went with their home-grown players and relied on bounce-back years from veterans.
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One player who has returned to form this season is Jason Spezza, who hadn't played more than 62 games the past two seasons due to an assortment of injuries that included a torn knee ligament, a banged-up shoulder and a nagging groin injury. His production dipped to 57 points in each of the past two seasons, his lowest totals since his first full season in 2003-04.
This year, the 28-year-old Spezza is healthy and producing. He has 16 goals and 28 assists in 44 games, putting him on a point-per-game pace for the first time since 2008-09.
Spezza gave credit for his resurgence to the up-tempo style of new coach Paul MacLean, but feeling good physically hasn't hurt, either.
"The coaching change has been big for the whole group," Spezza said. "We practiced hard and worked, and I think I've benefited from that. Health is No. 1. When I'm feeling healthy, I can play my game and worry about nagging injuries and stuff like that. That has a lot to do with it too.
"I think we knew it wasn't going to be easy. But I think we believed we could stay in the playoff picture and give ourselves a chance down the stretch. That's the position we've put ourselves in. I don't think we're surprising ourselves, but we definitely know we have to keep things going. We wanted to be in the spot we're in and I think we believed. That's how we're here."
Some of Ottawa's success this season can be traced to last season's success of the Binghamton Senators, the team's AHL affiliate.
Binghamton won the Calder Cup and did so with a handful of players who are on Ottawa's roster this season -- Jared Cowen, Erik Condra, Bobby Butler, Colin Greening, Zack Smith and Kaspars Daugavins were all on that championship team.
The 20-year-old Cowen is fourth on the team in ice time at 19:58 per game, posting 4 goals and 12 points and a plus-2 rating from the blue line; Smith, 23, has 12 goals and 21 points in 44 games. Greening, 25, has 9 goals and 23 points; Butler, 24, has just 5 goals, but 3 have been game-winners; Condra, 25, has 7 goals, and the 23-year-old Daugavins has 7 points and has been a key part of the penalty kill along with Cowen, Smith and Condra.
Just about all of those young guys also played a lot during the second half of last season. Spezza said that's been a big part of this season's success.
"There's a whole bunch of guys that got 30 games' experience last year," Spezza said. "That accelerated the learning curve. They got comfortable in the League. A lot of different guys are contributing on different nights. Those guys got the chance to win the Calder Cup in Binghamton, and the camaraderie they got in winning a championship down there has translated to up here."
The Senators had four players voted into the Tim Hortons 2012 NHL All-Star Game that will be played in Ottawa at the end of January, all of whom have improved on their numbers of last season.
Milan Michalek, the big piece of the puzzle in the trade that sent Dany Heatley to San Jose before the 2009-10 season, is finally paying big dividends. The 27-year-old has 22 goals, four short of his career high. Spezza is ninth in the League in points, while captain Daniel Alfredsson has 14 goals and 19 assists in 38 games after 14 goals and 17 assists in an injury-riddled season that saw him play in only 54 games.
The seasons of those three have been nice, but 21-year-old defenseman Erik Karlsson is playing Norris Trophy-worthy hockey. He has 41 points, eight more than the next-closest defenseman. He is plus-7 while playing 25:33 per game, 10th most in the NHL.
The combination of young and old has translated into the Senators sitting six points clear of ninth place in the East. It's also helped that no team has amassed more points in games when trailing after two periods; the Senators are 6-13-1, tied with the Rangers for the League's best winning percentage (.300) in that situation.
Adding 22-year-old Kyle Turris in a trade from the Phoenix Coyotes in exchange for defenseman David Rundblad on Dec. 17 has only helped the cause. In 11 games, Turris has 1 goal and 7 assists as the Senators have gone 8-1-2 since his arrival.
"We have great chemistry in the room and we've performed well because of it," Spezza said. "We have a lot of unselfish players and guys on different nights playing in different roles. Everybody has stepped up, and I think that's why we're in the position we're in, in a playoff spot, is because we've had contributions from everyone."
MacLean, however, knows a playoff spot through 44 games doesn't mean much, no matter what a team's expectations were before the season.
"Right now, we're all pleased with what we've done and how we've grown as a team," MacLean said. "The final bell isn't until we've played 82 games, so it's a little early to say we're anything besides what we are. We're a team that's rebuilding and we're trying to find our way and our identity.
"For us, we were trying to build a foundation, so I'm not sure if there are expectations you can put on that. We knew coming in where we wanted to go to. We're not by any means there yet. The only expectation was to grow as a team and get better and build on our foundation for down the road, and we've done that as well."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo