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Sens counting on 'youthful enthusiasm' in opener

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Senators teen sensation Mika Zibanejad admits tonight's season-opener against the Detroit Red Wings, which also marks his NHL debut, figures to be "nerve-wracking" (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).

Sleep, he admits, didn't come easily on the night before his gets to live his biggest hockey dream for the first time.

Mika Zibanejad doesn't imagine it's going to get any easier in the hours leading up to the Ottawa Senators' season-opening matchup with the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200).

Then again, it's not every day that an 18-year-old gets to say he's playing his first career National Hockey League game. And, to boot, against a team filled with Swedish hockey stars that are household names to a puck-loving lad from Stockholm.

"It's going to be nerve-wracking, for sure," Zibanejad, the Senators' top pick (sixth overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, said following the team's pre-game skate earlier today in the Motor City. "But I'm going to try to enjoy it and have fun."

No doubt the young centre can take comfort in the fact that he has another Swedish hockey legend — Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson — on the right side of his line. Alfredsson himself has reason to be enthused about tonight, which marks his first NHL game since Feb. 7, when back woes sidelined him for what turned out to be the balance of the 2010-11 season.

"Knowing he's there is a big help, for sure," said Zibanejad. "He knows how to handle this. He's played a first game, too, so he knows what it's all about. So I'm really happy to have him on my right side."

Head coach Paul MacLean offered some rather simple advice.

"Make sure you breathe during the national anthem and make sure you enjoy it," said MacLean, who makes his NHL head coaching debut against the team that employed him as an assistant for the previous six seasons. "That's basically all you can do. We've all gone through our first (game) and it's an exciting time for them.

"But as long as they're breathing, they should be able to get through it."

While Zibanejad is the youngest of the lot, he's hardly the only youthful face in the Senators lineup for tonight. Defenceman Jared Cowen will start a season in the NHL for the first time, while 21-year-old winger Nikita Filatov makes his regular-season debut in an Ottawa jersey. Opening night will also be something new for forwards Stephane Da Costa, Erik Condra, Bobby Butler and Colin Greening.

"It's a big deal (for them), but we don't want to make it too much of a big deal," Alfredsson said with reference to Zibanejad and Cowen, who played their way on to the team during training camp. "They've played well during this opportunity and they know how to handle themselves. It's up to us around them to make sure they enjoy it, too.

"That's the beauty of a team sport, the mix of old and young and putting it together. Their enthusiasm in practice and in games like this definitely rubs off on us."

MacLean believes the Senators can harness the energy of the younger players around them and use it an a positive way against a much more experienced Wings squad.

"I'm hoping that our youthful enthusiasm is actually going to set the tone of the game for us and maybe we can get off to a good start because of our youth," he said. "They're going to have a lot of energy and if we can just put the puck in the right places and not give them turnovers ... the Red Wings can really make you pay if you're giving them the puck in the neutral zone."

Added centre Jason Spezza: "They're going to have some great energy and some nerves, but I think we'll try to use that to our advantage. Just keep the room loose a little bit before the game, but use the energy to come out pretty hard and come out fast."

A night like tonight, however — the start of a new season, when hope abounds everywhere — brings out a little bit of a kid in everyone. It's the biggest sign of them all that hockey truly is back.

"Everybody gets nervous (before opening night)," said Spezza. "You go to bed last night and you a little bit of butterflies and excitement. We wait all summer to get in the game, so we're excited the season is here, training camp is over and we can start playing for real."

Around the boards

David Rundblad's NHL debut has been put on hold, as he'll be one of the scratches for tonight along with veteran centre Zenon Konopka. But with another road test Saturday in Toronto against the Maple Leafs (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200), it's possible both could see action before the weekend is out. "We play again tomorrow night and we're going to maybe make some adjustments after the game tonight," said MacLean. "David's here to play on the team, so we don't expect him just to practice. But we need to work on his defensive game, just to make sure he's ready" ... The Senators' lines during the pre-game skate: Milan Michalek-Jason Spezza-Nikita Filatov; Colin Greening-Mika Zibanejad-Daniel Alfredsson; Nick Foligno-Stephane Da Costa-Chris Neil, and Erik Condra-Zack Smith-Bobby Butler ... Defence pairings: Jared Cowen-Sergei Gonchar, Chris Phillips-Brian Lee and Filip Kuba-Erik Karlsson.

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