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Young Senators' confidence continues to grow

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Defenceman Matt Carkner says the Senators are benefitting from a "new energy" that has helped them rise into playoff contention just past the season's halfway point (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).

In a lot of eyes, they're one of the National Hockey League's most pleasant surprises.

But ask the Ottawa Senators about their performance to date, and they'll tell you they're exactly where they wanted to be just past the 2011-12 season's midpoint. Even if the path to getting to this point hasn't always provided the smoothest of rides.

As the Senators prepare to take on the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden in New York (7 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200), they're sitting in fifth spot with a 23-15-6 mark and rate as one of the NHL's hottest teams. Ottawa is 9-1-2 in its last 12 outings, a streak which has propelled the team into post-season contention in the East.

"We knew it wasn't going to be easy," centre Jason Spezza admitted following Senators practice earlier today at Chelsea Piers in downtown Manhattan. "But we believed we could stay in the playoff picture and give ourselves a chance down the stretch. That's the position we've put ourselves in.

"I don't think we're surprising ourselves, but we definitely know that we have to keep things going. We wanted to be in the spot we're in and we believed it. That's how we're here."

This surely isn't the same squad that found itself 28th overall in the NHL at this time a year ago. With a number of youthful faces injected into the mix — half a dozen current Sens were part of the Binghamton Senators' Calder Cup championship run in the American Hockey League last spring — and a new coaching staff headed up by Paul MacLean on board, the face of the team has changed in so many ways.

"There's a lot of new energy around the room," said defenceman Matt Carkner. "A lot of new faces came in, a new coaching staff, and the guys who went through last year's struggles ... we really didn't want to go through that again. We knew there was going to be a learning period. We didn't know how we were going to perform, but all we wanted to do was have fun, be a good group of guys and work hard together to get to where we needed to go.

"So far, it's working out well. The new faces have fit in real nice and we're working well together. Guys are stepping up big time right now. Our leaders are leading the way and everyone's pitching in. It's a full team effort ... Our focus is just to work every day to get better and better."

In MacLean's eyes, the Senators are right on track in terms of his building process.

"We knew coming in where we wanted to go to," he said. "We're not there by any means yet, but growth of our team has been what I would call a normal growth pattern of a team. The only expectation was to grow as a team and get better and build on our foundation for down the road, and I think we've done that."

Karlsson expected to return Thursday against Rangers

Defenceman Erik Karlsson, who sat out Tuesday's 5-1 road win over the Pittsburgh Penguins with an upper-body ailment, didn't practice with the team today. However, MacLean said he's fully confident the NHL's top-scoring defenceman will be available to face the Rangers.

"Erik will be fine. We just want to make sure," he said in explaining Karlsson's absence from practice today. "That's my expectation now, that he should play (Thursday)." 

Around the boards

With three goals in his last three games, Senators forward Milan Michalek has clearly rediscovered the hot hand he held before suffering a concussion in a collision with Karlsson during a Dec. 13 game in Buffalo. "It feels great," said Michalek, whose 22 goals rank him in a tie for fourth in the NHL with Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks (Tampa's Steven Stamkos leads with 29). "I've got some confidence back and, hopefully, I can keep scoring." ... Captain Daniel Alfredsson took a "maintenance day" off practice but is expected to be in the lineup Thursday against the Rangers ... Binghamton Senators bench boss Kurt Kleinendorst has been added to the Eastern Conference coaching staff for the 2012 AHL All-Star Classic, set for Jan. 30 in Atlantic City, N.J. It's the first appearance in the game for Kleinendorst, who guided the B-Sens to the Calder Cup crown in 2010-11 ... The Senators close out the first of two multi-game road trips this month with a Saturday visit to the Bell Centre in Montreal to face the Canadiens (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200) ... Ottawa's final home contest before the NHL all-star break comes Monday, when the Winnipeg Jets visit Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200). Fewer than 750 tickets remain.

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