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MacLean's winning touch 'catalyst' for playoff drive

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Senators head coach Paul MacLean makes his Stanley Cup playoff debut as a bench boss against the Rangers on Thursday night, when Game 1 is played at Madison Square Garden in New York (Photo by Matthew Healy/OSHC).
The most experienced rookie of them all is no different than the rest.

Paul MacLean can't wait to get his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs as a National Hockey League head coach.

"We're going to find out," the Ottawa Senators bench boss said with a grin today when asked about how he'll feel when the puck drops Thursday night at Madison Square Garden for Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarter-final against the New York Rangers (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).

Not that MacLean is bereft of any past playoff experience. You can't be a Detroit Red Wings assistant for six years — MacLean's previous job before landing the Senators gig — without getting a serious whiff of the pressure cooker that is the Stanley Cup playoffs. The 53-year-old Nova Scotia native was there for two finals alongside Wings head coach Mike Babcock, earning a Stanley Cup ring as a part of Detroit's championship crew in 2007-08.

But it's MacLean's show to run in Ottawa and he'll tell you that changes everything.

"I'm in charge now, so that makes it different in a lot of ways," he said before the Senators boarded the plane for New York, where the first two games of the best-of-seven series will be played Thursday and Saturday. "You have to make the decisions that count at the right time and under the gun, and I'm looking forward to it. I'm confident in my team and in my coaching staff, that we're going to be able to recognize what's (happening) on the ice.

"And I think we have enough experience as a coaching staff that we feel we're going to be able to recognize (situations) and give our team the input they need."

That level of confidence clearly runs both ways. Ask around the Senators dressing room and you'll find one very obvious sentiment that underlines the success they've enjoyed in getting to this point: In Mac, We Trust.

"He's been huge," Senators centre Jason Spezza said of the impact MacLean's touch has made on this team. "He's come in with a great attitude and really defined our roles as players. He's been real good with the team, made us get better every day and pushed us in practice. I think we've all really enjoyed having him here as a coach. He's pushed us all and made us better players."

There is also no doubt the man who gave the opportnity to MacLean — a former star as a player with the Winnipeg Jets in the 1980s — knows the immense value he's brought to the mix.

"It goes without saying that Paul is a real catalyst to what happened here," said Senators general manager Bryan Murray. "He brought a professionalism with his staff. He allowed the players — a lot of the veteran players, in particular — to achieve what they're capable of achieving. He included them, he gave them some ownership of the team ... his game plan, on a nightly basis, gave the guys a chance (to win).

"He was so open-minded to come in here and play different guys. When I made the trade for (Kyle) Turris, I said 'Paul, I don't think I can make it if he can' play regular.' He said 'he'll play regular for me, Bryan.' When we got (Jared) Cowen into the lineup, he said 'he'll play all the time.' I can go through the lineup of guys but when we talked about them, Paul said 'they'll play. We'll make them better.' And that's a real compliment to the whole staff but, as a leader, he's had an outstanding year along with our team."

On several occasions this season, it's been suggested to MacLean that his efforts are worthy of consideration for the Jack Adams Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL's coach of the year. But he deflects praise to the players at every turn, saying they're the ones doing the work. It's another reason why, with the stakes so high now, the Senators will run through walls for their coach.

To a man, the players bought into what MacLean has sold them from Day 1. And as the old saying goes, seeing is believing. In what was billed as a rebuilding season, the Senators find themselves among the elite group of 16 teams about to embark on the quest for Lord Stanley's famed old mug.

"The way we play, the system we play ... it's an up-tempo, skating and energizing game, which is fun to play," said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. "He's also brought fun back into the locker room, too. We've said all along we've fed off our energy in the room, been able to have fun when the time is right and get focused when it's game time. (MacLean) has been a big part of that and those are the two biggest factors (he's brought)."

Around the boards

Senators forward Nick Foligno on the team's attitude headed into Game 1: "We're so excited about the opportunity we have. We worked so hard and we realize all the work we put in to get here, when people said maybe we weren't going to. Now we want to prove that we belong and that we can win. It's just a matter of us going out there and playing real well against a good team." ... Defenceman Matt Carkner (lower body) returned to practice today and declared himself good to go if called upon against the Blueshirts. "If I'm needed, I feel pretty good," said the native of nearby Winchester, Ont. "I took a few days off just to heal up a little bit, but I feel pretty good today." ... MacLean will have a full roster to choose from for Game 1, saying today "right now, everyone's available." ... The Senators assigned top prospect centre Mika Zibanejad to the Binghamton Senators today. He'll suit up for the B-Sens for the final two games of their American Hockey League season this weekend.

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