Halfway to the finish line, the Ottawa Senators are exactly where they want to be.
Sitting pretty atop the Eastern Conference standings, with a 27-10-4 record and a comfortable nine-point cushion over the second-place New Jersey Devils when both hit the 41-game pole over the weekend.
So far, so good, says Senators head coach John Paddock, who preached long and hard from training camp on about avoiding the dreaded “hangover” that has afflicted several Stanley Cup finalists in recent seasons.
“I like where we are,” Paddock said as he reflected on the Senators’ successful start to the 2007-08 season. “We’ve been (on top) from the start to this time, and I think we’ve withstood the challenges of that.
“At the start of the season, my thoughts were that we were the team with the target on its back from where we were last spring, and I think that’s true. I hoped after 10 games, we would still be the team (in the Eastern Conference) and we were.”
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, though – the Senators endured a seven-game winless streak at the end of November. But through it all, they maintained their grip on top spot in the conference.
“We certainly have had more ups and downs than we’d like, but to be (nine) points up on everybody else, we must have been the most consistent,” said Paddock. “I don’t think we can have too many complaints about the first half.”
Added captain Daniel Alfredsson
: “We’ve got to be happy with where we are, there’s no question. We had the one (bad) stretch but even then, there were a few games we should have won and found a way to lose. But I think it’s been a good first half.”
Centre Jason Spezza
said the Senators’ overall consistency has allowed them to build the nine-point gap over the rest of the pack. What’s more encouraging – and perhaps more frightening for the Senators’ foes – is Spezza’s belief that the team hasn’t come close to playing its best hockey yet.
“We’ve played pretty good hockey and been pretty consistent, except for the seven-game losing streak. So we’ve got to be happy,” said Spezza. “But I think we also feel like we can get better, which is a good thing, because I don’t feel like we’ve played our best.
“We’ve just got to stay consistent. Some nights, we don’t give up any chances and are real hard to play against and on other nights, we’re a bit looser and give up a few more chances and take a few more penalties. I think once you get the combination of everything going together and everybody working the same way, it gets better.”
Even on some off nights, though, the Senators have managed to pull out wins. In Spezza’s eyes, it’s a product of the experience the team gained in its run to the Cup final last season.
“We know how to win hockey games,” he said. “Even a game like (on Saturday), where we don’t outplay (Tampa Bay) for the first two periods, and we find a way to win. Maybe a few years ago, we find a way not to come back in that game.”
Now comes the hard part, though: Slugging their way through January and February before the playoff drive begins in earnest in March.
“January and February are the toughest months,” said Alfredsson. “But this is when you try to make the most of it. March and then early April, that’s when you’ve really got to fine tune you game and get everything in order. But (now) is when you can get some extra points if you’re really sharp.”
Paddock cautioned that while the Senators are in good shape at the moment, the job isn’t close to done. Not when you’re coming off a Stanley Cup finalist season.
One goal, you see, remains firmly in sight.
“You don’t win anything in the first half, you just put yourself in position to have a good second half and look forward to the spring,” he said. “Our goal as a team is certainly to play better (and) more consistently, and to win that last game of the season.”