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Senators hope this Atlanta trip provides spark

by John Manasso
ATLANTA -- Two months ago, the Ottawa Senators came to Atlanta foundering, the losers of four straight in regulation. They continued that slide in a 6-1 drubbing, and seemingly making things look even worse, No. 1 goalie Pascal Leclaire left the game with an injury and missed the next nine games.

But somewhere in the ashes of that performance the Senators grasped a little magic. They won their next 11 games and 13 of 14 to propel themselves high into the Eastern Conference standings. Thursday, back in Atlanta, they find themselves trying to regain their mojo once again, having gone 1-5-1 in their last seven.

The difference today is the Senators sit fifth in the East with 79 points. Senators coach Cory Clouston does not ascribe any mystical motives behind the Senators' turnaround.

"We got healthy and our goaltending started playing much better," he said.

In that five-game losing streak, top center Jason Spezza missed all five, during his 20-game absence with a right knee injury. Captain Daniel Alfredsson, who missed a total of 11 games with a left shoulder injury, also missed all five. Top goal-scorer Milan Michalek missed three games of the losing streak and seven overall.

Defenseman Filip Kuba, the team's leader in time on ice at 22:55 per game, missed two of those games and four overall.

In a bit of the unexpected, goalie Mike Brodeur, presently in the minor leagues, provided the spark that got the Senators going with a 2-0 shutout of the New York Rangers on Jan. 14.

"Fortunately for us, it gave us the confidence going forward," Clouston said of that win.

While the Senators indeed got healthy, and the surprising Brian Elliott ascended to the position of No. 1 goalie while Leclaire had his play derailed by 24 games as a result of injury, the roots in the Senators' turnaround run deeper.

Alfredsson and longtime defenseman Chris Phillips credit Clouston, who took over for the final 34 games last season after Craig Hartsburg was fired, for providing that trendiest of buzzwords in the League these days -- structure.

"I think one of the reasons is Cory, the coach," Alfredsson said. "He came in and we were kind of in a position where we weren't very good in any of the areas and he came in and brought some structure. I think we were much better defensively. We still have some improvement to do there. Overall, I think five-on-five there that's the biggest change."

Said Phillips, who is plus-6 this season after finishing minus-14 in 2008-09: "I think he's really brought a focus of structure and how he expects us to play. Every time we have video, it's the same points that he's nailing down in where we have to be and what he expects of us. And now at this point of the season we know it inside and out -- what to expect on the ice and where other guys are to be.

"After a while it becomes second nature, and when you can go out on the ice and react and make plays, as opposed to having to go think -- that's a lot slower -- and I think that's helped us out a lot."

Thrashers defenseman Christoph Schubert played in Ottawa for four seasons before he was waived and claimed by Atlanta on Oct. 2. Schubert spoke a bit more freely about what he perceived as the difference in Ottawa's play under Clouston, as opposed to Hartsburg.

"I just think with Cory, he really changed -- he knew that Ottawa was a more offensive team," Schubert said. "He knew we have guys who can score the goals if he just let them play. Even when we went to the (Stanley Cup Final in 2007), if we let two or three goals in, we could score four or five or six. There was confidence in guys on all four lines that they can score the goals. We missed that under Hartsburg. Clouston brought that back into Ottawa hockey."

With the trade request from two-time 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley over the summer, it remained to be seen at the season's outset whether Ottawa could score goals at that familiar pace. But in Michalek, whom the Senators received from San Jose in return for Heatley, the Senators have gotten 22 goals -- one fewer than his total of last season. In the signing of Alexei Kovalev, they have added 17 more for a total of 39 -- that's three more than Heatley currently has with the Sharks.

Plus, Mike Fisher has 21 goals, eight more than last season with 12 games remaining.

Of how the Heatley trade would affect the team, Alfredsson said, "I don't think we knew what to expect ourselves, either."

But Michalek and Kovalev "brought lots for us, no question," he said. "As far as Dany, you can't replace 40 or 50 goals in one guy. … It's two guys who have helped us offensively and they've fit in great on our team. It's been fun to have them here as well. It's a good fit and I believe we have a good group of guys who want to do some good things."

With the media circus caused by Heatley's trade demand and obviously not wanting to disparage his predecessor, Clouston is circumspect when asked about the changes in the team.

"I think we've played the right way, with a lot more aggressive approach," he said. "I think we're more difficult to play against. I think we've been a lot more consistent. Not as of late. I think other than the last handful of games, we've been consistent. We've battled a lot of adversity. We've had a lot of injuries to key guys and managed to keep our heads above water when we've had injuries and when we got healthy we've been able to make up a lot of ground. I think the character of the team has been very evident in the last while, as well."
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