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Northeast: Ottawa finds strength in its momentary weakness

by James Murphy

After losing seven-straight games, the Ottawa Senators are enjoying a six-game win streak.
Heading into this season, the Ottawa Senators made it clear that they wanted to prove that last season’s run to the Stanley Cup Final was no fluke.

The Senators were still bitter over what they admitted was not their best performance in the Final and they were intent on getting back to hockey’s biggest stage to finish what they consider “unfinished business.”

While this is the traditional mantra of any team that lost in the Final the previous season, Ottawa went out and walked the walk, winning its first five games of the season and going 16-3 during its first 19.

While that hot start appeared to be an indication that the Senators meant business, their current six-game win streak may be a period that they look back to as a turning point in the season. That’s because, this stretch of success comes on the heels of a seven-game skid in which Ottawa went 0-4-3 and lost one of their key defenseman in Anton Volchenkov, who suffered a broken finger Nov. 29.

The Senators were already missing forward Patrick Eaves who suffered a separated shoulder Nov. 22 and is out indefinitely. But the losses and injuries did not bury this team; they made it stronger.

“To come out of that tough time there where we couldn’t find a way to win and then lost some key guys, but then bounce back like we have, says a lot about this team,” says John Paddock, the Ottawa coach. “We’ve seen this before, when (Jason) Spezza was out last season, so I’m not necessarily surprised, but once again, this team just finds ways to win.”

During their torrid start, the Senators had no problem finding ways to win. They almost seemed to show up and the team just rode the momentum. But as any team in the NHL will do during the course of the season, Ottawa hit a bump in the road and all of a sudden it was struggling to find the little things that led to those wins.

“There’s not one team in this League, or even in pro sports, that’s not going to go through a tough stretch, but it’s how that team responds that shows if they’re a winning team,” forward Randy Robitaille said.

“We just took a step back and tried to figure out all the little things we were doing right during that start we had and tried to get back to doing those things again.”

Robitaille agreed with Paddock that this current win streak is further proof of the resiliency and chemistry on this team.

“A lot of times, a tough stretch like we had and losing guys like we have could easily derail a team,” Robitaille said.

“If teams can’t bounce back with a good winning streak and just win one here and one there, then they’re never going to recover really. I think it’s a sign of a good team when you can go seven games without winning and then win six in a row.”

Many times when a team goes through a rough patch as Ottawa did, there will be team meetings and grueling practices.

“We had those meetings, but that’s really not what gets you back on track,” Robitaille said. “I mean how many meetings do you think the Miami Dolphins have had? It’s about going out there and just doing those little things, like I said. You get that winning feeling back by playing better and not just talking about it.”

While they may be winning again, the Senators are still being hit by the injury bug. On Saturday, forward Mike Fisher went down with a strained oblique muscle and is not on the Senators current two-game road trip that takes them to Atlanta on Thursday. Paddock wasn’t sure of Fisher’s status as of Tuesday.

Randy Robitaille has been skating on the Sens' top line with center Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley.
The Senators depth in talent though has allowed Paddock to alter the lineup without affecting the overall chemistry. Robitaille has been skating on the top line with center Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley and captain Daniel Alfredsson has seen time on the second line with Chris Kelley in the middle and Antoine Vermette on the right. With an assist in a 3-2 win against Boston Tuesday, Alfredsson has registered a point in nine-straight games. With two goals against Boston, Spezza has a five-game point streak going.

But while depth may help, forward Chris Neil believes the willingness to adapt by every Senators player shouldn’t be underscored.

“We obviously have a lot of depth and that’s going to help when guys go down,” Neil acknowledged.

“But it’s the sacrifices and the fact that all the guys in this dressing room will do whatever it takes to win, that has us where we are today. If you’re not willing to adapt, you’re not going to make it in this League. We’re doing those little things again. Forechecking, getting pucks in deep and making sure we control the puck because it’s all about puck possession.”

Paddock knows there’s a long road ahead, but this latest display of resilience was a good sign to the first-year head coach.

“They’re digging down deep and battling hard again,” he said. “That’s what winning teams do.”

Who’s hot?

The Senators are on a six-game win streak and one of the main reasons they’re winning again is their big guns consistently find the net. Center Jason Spezza has five goals and six assists in his last four games and is in the midst of a five-game point streak. Captain Daniel Alfredsson has registered a point in nine-straight games and has four assists in his last four games. Until Tuesday’s 3-2 win against Boston, in which he had an assist, winger Dany Heatley had three-straight games in which he scored two goals. He has eight points (six goals, two assists), in his last four games.

The Senators are also getting help from the defense, as well. Joe Corvo has been hot of late with five points (one goal, four assists), in his last four games. Between the pipes, Martin Gerber has regained his early-season form. After coming in for the injured Ray Emery on Dec. 12 and making 31 saves in a 6-0 Senators win, Gerber is 3-0 with a 1.54 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage.

Heading into Wednesday’s game with the Islanders, the Sabres were riding a three-game win streak. Forward Jason Pominville had a goal and five assists in those three wins, while forward Derek Roy has chipped in with five points (two goals, three assists), and forward Maxim Afinogenov had a goal and three assists. Ryan Miller has been solid once again, going 3-0-0 with a 2.35 GAA and .914 save-percentage.

Black and Blue

Boston – Center Patrice Bergeron continues to recover from a concussion and broken nose suffered Oct. 27. Bergeron, who remains on injured reserve, received some encouraging news Tuesday, when he was cleared to resume “light workouts” after his most recent examination. The Bruins still believe he is a long way from returning though. Andrew Alberts is day-to-day with what the Bruins now believe is post-concussion syndrome. Alberts has been experiencing nausea and headaches and missed the Bruins last two games. Manny Fernandez is out for the season following knee surgery last week.

Buffalo –
The Sabres have almost cleared their injury list as defenseman Dmitri Kalinin was expected to return to the lineup Wednesday after missing 23 games with a knee injury. Meanwhile, defenseman Teppo Numminen, who has yet to play a game this season because of heart surgery, has been practicing this week and could be cleared for a return in the New Year.

Montreal –
The Canadiens remain without forwards Steve Begin, who is out indefinitely with a separated shoulder and Bryan Smolinski, who is on injured reserve with a knee injury.

Ottawa –
Forward Patrick Eaves (shoulder) and defenseman Anton Volchenkov (broken finger) remain on injured reserve. Forward Mike Fisher is day-to-day with a strained oblique muscle.

Toronto –
While defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo is inching closer to returning from a knee injury, the Leafs lost another key blueliner when Bryan McCabe broke his left hand Saturday. McCabe is now on injured reserve and is expected to miss six-to-eight weeks.

The Week Ahead
-The Sabres are on Long Island on Wednesday to face the Islanders.

On Thursday, Sidney Crosby and the Penguins invade Boston to take on the Bruins. The Canadiens begin a six-game road trip in Washington; the Senators are in Atlanta and the Maple Leafs are at Tampa Bay.

On Friday, the Sabres will once again be the only Northeast team in action when they host the Flyers in the first game of a home-and-home set.

Saturday night there will be a full slate of Northeast teams in action. The Bruins host the Blues in a matinee; the Blackhawks are in Ottawa, the Sabres complete the home-and-home with the Flyers, the Canadiens are in Atlanta and the Maple Leafs are at Florida.

On Sunday the Bruins and Penguins hook-up again in a matinee before the NHL holiday break for Christmas Eve and Christmas.
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