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'We're starting to play some consistent hockey now'

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Head coach Paul MacLean has guided the Senators to a 10-9-1 mark to date and, with the NHL season at its quarter pole, likes the overall direction things are headed for the team. It's a positive situation for a youthful team with plenty of room still to grow (Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).

Almost from the day he first arrived in the nation's capital, Paul MacLean has made it the centrepiece of his coaching philosophy.

A mantra filled with optimism, if you will, that he's consistently preached to a group of players who have quickly come to learn that it indeed can be the key to success.

Let's get a little better every day, MacLean said when the Ottawa Senators introduced him as their new head coach in June. And as he surveys what he has wrought through the first 20 games of the National Hockey League season, the Nova Scotian can say he likes where his team stands today. And perhaps more importantly, where it is headed.

"At this time, we're real pleased with where we are," MacLean told reporters today in Vancouver, where the Senators are gearing up for a Sunday contest with the Canucks at Rogers Arena (9 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200). "For the most part, the players' work ethic has been excellent since Day 1. We've asked them to really work on the conditioning part of our game and the skating part of our game and they've embraced that.

"Now their attention to detail is improving and our game improves a little bit every day."

At 10-9-1, the Senators currently sit in eighth spot in the Eastern Conference — far above the last-place finish many predicted for them at the outset of the season. As might be expected from a team filled with so much youth, they've seen a wild swing between highs and lows. After starting the season 1-5-0, Ottawa ran off six straight victories, then went winless in five before embarking on their current three-game run of road wins.

"With young people, you tend to be that way," Senators general manager Bryan Murray said when asked about the streakiness of his team. "The good thing about it is ... history tells me that your team should get a little better as you go forward. Young players will grow, get used to the league somewhat and be able to produce a little more consistently in the second half.

"What I like is we're starting to play some consistent hockey now. We're starting to not give up the scoring chances that we gave up early on. We're getting people to the net and we look like we're having fun in the game. It looks like there's real chemistry on the team and that in itself grows into something better as you go forward. It grows into (more) wins, we hope."

This is a team that, many suggested heading into the season, would be offensively challenged. But scan the NHL's scoring stats and you'll find Senators names dotting the leaderboard in several of them. Heading into play tonight, forward Milan Michalek ranked in a tie for second among league goal scorers with 12, just one behind Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Defenceman Erik Karlsson shares the NHL lead in assists (17) with the Canucks' Daniel Sedin and tops all league blueliners in points (18).

Also emerging as a clear strength is the Senators' penalty-killing unit. It rated near the bottom of the league in the first few weeks of the season, but has been lights out over the last several games behind the inspired work of Zack Smith, Erik Condra, Daugavins and Winchester.

"The big things is, they've worked at it every day," said MacLean. "When you work at something every day and it's a positive work environment, you can't help but get better."

Murray credits MacLean in a big way for creating that environment, and it's a sentiment also heartily endorsed by players up and down the Ottawa roster.

"Coaching is about people and there's no question Paul has great skill in that area," said Murray. "He has spent countless (amounts of) time going to individual players and suggesting one item or another to make them better. The players have responded and I think they appreciate what he does. They like the involvement.

"You listen to them on the plane or the bus and you just know there's a real positive feeling around the room. And I think Paul brings that as the head guy."

While the Senators are currently sitting in a playoff position, MacLean isn't ready yet to suggest how far this team can go. Youth can indeed be unpredictable and he says "the ongoing concern we have with our young players is that they're young players." But he likes the consistency that's beginning to develop across the board and that includes the play of goaltender Craig Anderson, who's allowed only five goals during Ottawa's current three-game win streak.

"If we can find consistent play with our team and our work ethic continues to grow, and our attention to detail on how we want to play continues to grow, who knows where it's going to go?" said MacLean. "We're not predicting we're going to be doing anything or playing anywhere. We're just going to go out and take it game by game and when it's all said and done, we're going to be where we're going to be."

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