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Senators relishing chance to prove pundits wrong

by Erin Nicks
After finishing 13th in the Eastern Conference last season, the Ottawa Senators realize the road back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs may be a tough one to navigate. However, the players believe success won't take as long to achieve.

"We've been talking about (a redemption year) all summer," defenseman Chris Phillips said. "We were very disappointed with the way things went last year. Obviously man-to-man, you want to go out and have good seasons and play the best you can as a team. But you look at where a lot of people have us slated and the expectations, and that's the nature of hockey players -- we want to go out and prove people wrong."

The Senators finished last season with a 32-40-10 record due in part to countless injuries -- most notably to their captain, Daniel Alfredsson, who was limited to 54 games and required offseason back surgery.


m. Michalek j. Spezza D. Alfredsson
n. Filatov c. Greening b. Butler
n. Foligno Z. SMITH S. Da Costa
C. Neil Z. Konopka E. Condra
J. Winchester P. Regin
C. Phillips E. Karlsson
S. Gonchar D. Rundblad
F. Kuba B. Lee
M. Carkner
C. Anderson
ones to watch
D Jared Cowen
G Robin Lehner
F Mika Zibanejad
D Patrick Wiercioch
Now with new faces behind the bench in coach Paul MacLean (formerly an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings), as well as assistants Dave Cameron and Mark Reeds, the Senators are ready to implement a fresh system based on quick skating and lightning-fast transition.

"I think, early on, Paul wants to push the pace a little bit and make sure our conditioning is up as a team," Jason Spezza said. "It's good as a player to have that early on in the season, too. We're on the same page as what we need as players and what he wants as a coach."

Ottawa fans should expect a fair amount of line juggling in the early months, as the team attempts to discover chemistry between new and old players. Spezza, with 21 goals and 57 points last season, should retain his position as the No. 1 center. He saw time and some success with Bobby Butler, a call-up from AHL Binghamton last season, but it's too early to say if Butler will be his permanent partner on the right wing, as opposed to Alfredsson.

"I think Paul wants to give a lot of guys a chance to play (on the top line), and I just want to ease into my game myself, too," Spezza said. "I don't mind playing with different guys."

One of the players likely to be given an early opportunity on the first line will be left wing Nikita Filatov. The sixth pick of the 2008 Entry Draft by Columbus, Filatov had a contentious relationship with Blue Jackets' coaches and management and was acquired by the Sens for a 2011 third-round pick. The 21-year-old forward had 7 assists in 23 NHL games last season and 20 points in 36 AHL games with Springfield. MacLean, however, believes Filatov will achieve much more in a Senators uniform.

"He's a skilled player," MacLean said. "He's got high-end skill, he's got high-end speed. He's great with the puck -- I'd like to see him have a little bit more of a nose for the net -- and maybe be a little bit more diligent without it. But those are things we can teach him."

Milan Michalek, who ranked second on the team with 18 goals, is looking to have a big season after recovering from knee and foot injuries. Michalek is bound to see top-six time on the left wing, as well.


IN: Alex Auld, G (free agent, Canadiens); Nikita Filatov, LW (trade, Blue Jackets); Zenon Konopka, C (free agent, Islanders)

OUT: David Hale, D (free agent); Pascal Leclaire, G (free agent); Curtis McElhinney, G (free agent, Coyotes); Ryan Shannon, RW (free agent, Lightning); Marek Svatos, RW (free agent)
The second-line center remains the biggest question mark thus far. Peter Regin likely will be given an opportunity, but underwhelmed with 17 points in 55 games last season. Binghamton call-up Zach Smith, with 9 points in 55 games, also may see time on the second line. Where Jesse Winchester ends up in this equation remains to be seen, after he was sidelined in the preseason with a shoulder injury. This may leave the door open for free-agent signing Stephane Da Costa, who made waves at the recent Oshawa Rookie Tournament with 4 goals (including a hat trick) in three games. Mika Zibanejad, the sixth pick of the 2011 Entry Draft who also turned heads in Oshawa and scored an overtime winner last week against the Bruins, may be returned to Djurgårdens of the Swedish Elite League for 2011-12.

Nick Foligno and Chris Neil likely will be the wings on the third line, while Colin Greening and Erik Condra probably will be centred by free-agent pick-up Zenon Konopka on the fourth line. The Senators will be looking to Konopka for aggressive duties, but also are counting on him to pad their victory total in the faceoff circle. Konopka was fourth in the League last season by winning 57.7 percent of his draws with the New York Islanders.

While most of the talk in September has been about stay-at-home rookie Jared Cowen and his offensive counterpart, David Rundblad, it will be difficult for the Senators to find room for them in their crowded defensive core.

There's hope for a bounce-back season from veteran Chris Phillips, who wrapped up 2010-11 with a League-worst minus-35 rating. In the same boat is Filip Kuba, who had a rough start to last season after breaking his leg in mid-September and missing the first 16 games of the regular season. Kuba never recovered his offensive spark, contributing only 16 points in 64 games.

Erik Karlsson will be expected to continue his development as he enters his second full NHL season. Karlsson was the only Senator to play in the 2011 NHL All-Star Game, and was second on the team with 45 points in 75 games. He'll likely see time alongside Sergei Gonchar, who the Senators will be looking to for additional power-play offense. Of Gonchar's 27 points last season, 20 came via the man-advantage.

Filling out the top six will be 24-year-old Brian Lee and the tough-nosed Matt Carkner, who amassed 136 penalty minutes in 50 games in 2011-12.

After posting a .939 save percentage and a 2.05 goals-against average in 18 games with Ottawa last season, Craig Anderson was rewarded with a four-year, $12.75-million contract and the assurance that he will be the man carrying the Senators in net. Anderson was one of the Sens' bright spots down the stretch following his acquisition in February from Colorado in exchange for Brian Elliott.

Anderson knows he has a tough road ahead of him, but is ready for the challenge.

"For me, it's just showing up every day to work and battling hard for the guys and making sure I'm ready to go," Anderson said. "It's about being consistent, so when the guys look back in the net, they know what they're going to get every night."

Backing up Anderson will be Alex Auld, who was signed as a free agent July 1. Auld, who previously had spent time in Ottawa during the 2008-09 season, gives the Sens the solid No. 2 they will require, while allowing top prospect Robin Lehner to continue to polish his game in Binghamton.
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