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Senators' call surprise holiday treat for O'Brien

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Jim O'Brien will make his NHL debut for the Senators tonight at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, the same building in which he was drafted by Ottawa three years ago (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images).
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The holiday season just got a little more hectic for the O'Brien family of Maplewood, Minn.

Not that anybody is likely complaining about this unexpected reunion on an almost spring-like day in the capital of the great state of Ohio.

Certainly, there was no wiping the smile off the face of 21-year-old Jim O'Brien as he talked about making his National Hockey League debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight at Nationwide Arena (7 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200). It's been a whirlwind 24 hours for the Senators' top pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft since he learned Thursday he'd been called up to the big club from the American Hockey League's Binghamton Senators.

"I was really excited, kind of shocked," O'Brien said about getting the news yesterday in Binghamton, where he's produced 12 goals and 25 points in 33 games. "They didn't really give me any warning or anything like that. They just kind of pulled me in the office and said 'you've got a long day ahead of you. You're going to Columbus.' It put me back a step, but it was pretty cool ... It's really exciting, just a great feeling."

Shortly after delivering the word to his family, O'Brien's father, Pete, jumped in the car and, with sons Tom and Joe and daughter Mary in tow, made the 10-hour drive to Columbus to witness Jim's biggest hockey moment since his draft day. Ironically enough, that happened on a big stage at Nationwide Arena, but tonight's spotlight figures to shine even brighter.

"It feels a little bit different when you see (Alex) Kovalev and (Daniel) Alfredsson out there," O'Brien said after taking his first pre-game skate as a Senator. "That's just when you're sitting there waiting for the Zamboni to get off. But then you go out there and go out for a couple of drills and it's hockey.

"I want to just go out there (tonight) and play as well as I can. Go out there and play hard, just try to play my game and go out there and help the team get a win."

That's what head coach Cory Clouston had in mind when the Senators decided to give O'Brien his big chance. Defenceman Brian Lee is also being inserted into the lineup, with veterans Jarkko Ruutu and Filip Kuba being made healthy scratches. It's a significant statement for a team that dearly wants to finish off 2010 with a big road win tonight.

With No. 1 centre Jason Spezza now on long-term injured reserve, the Senators gained the salary cap flexibility to bring up O'Brien and Zack Smith, who was summoned from the farm earlier this week.

"I was really excited, kind of shocked. They didn't really give me any warning or anything like that. They just kind of pulled me in the office and said 'you've got a long day ahead of you. You're going to Columbus.' It put me back a step, but it was pretty cool ... It's really exciting, just a great feeling." - Jim O'Brien
"It's a situation where we're able to do that with Jason being out of the lineup," said Clouston. "We've got cap room if and when we need it now. When (Spezza) goes onto long term (injured reserve), it allows us to do some things. When you're tight up against the cap, you don't have a lot of opportunity to make adjustments

"Both (Kuba and Ruutu) are struggling, maybe for different reasons. But we need to have some energy into the lineup and we need to have some guys who are going to go out there and keep it simple, play hard and play well."

Clouston believes he'll get that from O'Brien, Smith and Jesse Winchester, who will start tonight's game on a line together against the Blue Jackets.

"All three guys are strong on the forecheck, they're strong on the puck, they can skate and they have some youth," said Clouston. "Jesse's not a young guy, but he's not an old guy, either. That line there, we feel, is going to be real strong on the forecheck and they just have to generate energy and give us good minutes."

O'Brien's promotion is just reward for a player who struggled mightily in his first pro season, totalling eight goals and 17 points in 76 games in 2009-10. But his improvement has been obvious to Senators management since O'Brien arrived at training camp in September.

"He's having a very good year (in Binghamton)," said Clouston. "Just about every time we talk to them down there, (they say) he's either been our best or second or third-best player. He's done a lot over the summer to improve his strength and conditioning and that's translated into his on-ice game. He's skating well, he's working extremely hard at both ends of the ice and not only is he putting up some good numbers, he's playing very well defensively as well."

The adjustment to pro hockey, O'Brien admitted, took some time.

"Last year was definitely a learning experience for me," he said. "Strength-wise, I don't think I was there. But I learned a lot during the year and I got better as I went along. I went home this summer and off the ice, I worked harder than I ever have before. I came into camp and came into the year feeling great ... It definitely went a lot better than last year. I felt good out there and it was definitely a good feeling coming out of camp."

Around the boards

Senators goaltender Brian Elliott makes his second career start against the Blue Jackets tonight. Back on Nov. 26, 2009 — the last time these two teams met — Elliott turned aside 32 shots in Ottawa's 2-1 victory at Scotiabank Place ... Steve Mason, who tended goal for Columbus that night, gets the call for the home side this evening. Last night, he backstopped the Jackets to a 3-2 win over the Maple Leafs in Toronto ... In a strange scheduling twist, the Leafs are at Scotiabank Place on Saturday to ring in the New Year against the Sens (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).

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