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Senators on the verge of something special

by Dave Lozo
The Ottawa Senators had one of the NHL's more up-and-down seasons in 2009-10.
They opened with five wins in seven games and were looking good at the quarter point of the season with a 12-6-3 record. They held the fort through early January and were 22-16-4 with the Boston Bruins coming to town on Jan. 5.
That's when the ship suddenly started sinking -- fast.
The Senators lost their next five games and looked to be a team that was in store for some serious changes. The club parted ways with goaltending coach Eli Wilson on Jan. 13 after a 6-1 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers the previous night. During the team's morning skate before facing the New York Rangers the next day, starting goaltender Pascal Leclaire suffered a concussion after taking a slap shot to the head, forcing the Senators to call up Mike Brodeur on an emergency basis because Brian Elliott was also unavailable.
With Ottawa's season on the brink, Brodeur blanked the Rangers 2-0 -- starting the Senators on an 11-game winning streak that vaulted them into a secure playoff spot, but not before they won just once in nine games at the start of March. They wound up fifth in the East and pushed the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins to six games in the conference quarterfinals before bowing out.
After making the playoffs for the 12th time in 13 seasons, the Sens feel like they are on the verge of doing something special after coming so close to getting out of the first round last season.
"After the way last season ended, we have some motivation coming into this one, that's for sure," defenseman Matt Carkner told the team's website. "I think we know that if we could have got past Pittsburgh ... you never know what would have happened. We were so close to going far in the playoffs.

"Basically, we're hungry to get going and we're not looking that far ahead right now. I think we have some expectations that we want to do a little better each year. As a team right now, we're looking pretty good."

It's hard to find a team that changed up front as little as the Senators. They return their top 10 point-producing forwards from a season ago, including Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Mike Fisher. One big positive that comes out of that is chemistry. A negative is the team finished in the middle of the League in goal-scoring a season ago and two of their four top scorers are getting up there in age.
Alfredsson turns 38 this season, although he's showing no signs of slowing with 71 points in 70 games last season. However, Alexei Kovalev will be 38 in November -- and he's coming off his worst season in terms of points per game since 2003-04 with the Montreal Canadiens.
Fisher, now 30, continued to establish himself as a consistent 20-goal scorer, reaching that level for the fourth time in five years. His 25 goals and 28 assists last season were both career-highs. Center Peter Regin, 24, showed real potential during his first full NHL season with 13 goals and 16 assists in 75 games. He also had 3 goals in six games against the Penguins in the playoffs.
Milan Michalek saw a dip in his production during his first season with the Senators. After three straight seasons of at least 55 points with the San Jose Sharks, Michalek was held to 22 goals and 12 assists in 66 games, but some of that can be attributed to the lack of production from Spezza and Kovalev -- and the rest to a knee injury that ultimately forced him to have surgery.
One notable departure for the Sens is center Matt Cullen, who played 21 games for Ottawa after coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes at the trade deadline. His 3 goals and 8 points tied for the Sens' lead in playoff scoring, but he signed a free-agent deal with the Minnesota Wild in July.

There was one big change on the blue line for the Senators, who said goodbye to shot-blocking force Anton Volchenkov and hello to offensive defenseman Sergei Gonchar.
Volchenkov spent all seven of his NHL seasons with the Senators, playing a tough, physical style of hockey. He signed with the New Jersey Devils during the offseason, leaving an opening for Gonchar.

The 36-year-old Gonchar had 11 goals and 39 assists in 62 games for Pittsburgh last season, and 30 of his points came on the power play. He should provide a boost to the Senators' power play, which finished 21st in the League last season.
Filip Kuba returns, though he will miss the first month of the regular season with a broken leg. Erik Karlsson, Chris Campoli, Chris Phillips and Carkner are also back. The loss of Kuba could open the door for 23-year-old Brian Lee or prospects Jared Cowen or Patrick Wiercioch to make the team.

The Senators acquired Leclaire from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2009 trade deadline thinking they found a No. 1 goaltender. But he underwhelmed last season, going 12-14-2 with a 3.20 goals-against average and .887 save percentage in 34 games. He should get a chance to reclaim sole possession of his job during training camp, but he'll have to be impressive.
That's because Elliott took the job and ran with it while Leclaire was out -- he went 29-18-4 with a 2.57 GAA and .909 save percentage in the regular season. But in the playoffs, Elliott gave way to Leclaire for Games 5 and 6 against the Penguins after throwing up a 4.14 GAA and .853 save percentage during the first four games of the series. Leclaire stepped in and won Game 5 -- a 3-2 victory in triple OT--  before losing Game 6. Leclaire stopped 95 of 102 shots in those two games.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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