The Ottawa Senators have officially hit the halfway point of the season, sitting in fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
And not even the most optimistic Sens fan — and I’m including Eugene Melnyk and Spartacat — could have envisioned this type of first half from Ottawa. Here are my 10 observations on this year’s Senators squad at the halfway point:
1. There won’t be any Daniel Alfredsson trade rumors at the deadline. The Sens captain might be in his final year in the NHL, but there is no way he is going anywhere. The Sens are in the thick of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference, with Alfredsson playing a major role. Since Dec. 1, he has collected 21 points in 17 games to look every bit like his old self. Alfredsson told me in training camp that if the Sens were in the playoff mix, he wouldn’t dream about a trade to a Stanley Cup contender. The Sens captain would rather squeak into the post-season with Ottawa than go anywhere else.
2. Sending Mika Zibanejad back to Sweden was the right move in October. Forget the fact that Zibanejad scored the gold medal-winning goal for Sweden on Thursday night at the world junior hockey championships. With him out of the picture, it has allowed Zack Smith to gain significant playing time as the Sens’ third-line centre. Smith has responded with 12 goals, becoming one of the club’s best two-way players. Zibanejad’s absence also allowed Bryan Murray to trade for Kyle Turris last month to shore up his club down the middle. When Zibanejad is ready to compete for a spot in the NHL, he could find himself on the wing, considering the centres will likely be Jason Spezza, Turris and Smith.
3. Speaking of Spezza, how many Sens fans would like to trade him now? Less than two years ago, he was booed on his home ice by fans during the playoff series loss to Pittsburgh. Fast forward to today and Spezza has regained his status as an elite centre — ranking in the top 10 in scoring and rounding out his game to include face-offs and better defensive play. In the 21 games the Sens have won this season, Spezza has 11 goals, 15 assists and a plus-11 rating. In short, he’s the offensive heartbeat of this club.
4. While Spezza is the heartbeat of the club’s offense, Erik Karlsson is still prone to giving the coaching staff heart attacks on some nights. There was a stretch in early December where he was consistently turning over the puck at the wrong time. But let’s be honest – the positives from Karlsson this season far outweigh the drawbacks. He’s on pace for a 66-assist season this year. How rare is that? Since 1995-96, only Nicklas Lidstrom, Raymond Bourque, Brian Leetch and Paul Coffey have hit the 60-assist mark as defensemen. A group of Hall of Famers that Karlsson could soon join. It makes you wonder what his Restricted Free Agent demands might be this summer.
5. Karlsson isn’t the only young defenceman to be making an impression for the Sens this season. Jared Cowen has emerged as a rock-solid young defenseman on the blueline. When Karlsson was struggling with his game in early December, Cowen was routinely logging 28 minutes a night. His performance this year allowed Murray to trade David Rundblad to Phoenix for Kyle Turris, as the Sens GM felt comfortable with his dynamic duo on the back end. It’s probably no coincidence that a few hours after Cowen became the first defenseman in Sens history to record four points and a +4 rating in a game, Murray pulled the trigger on that Rundblad deal.
6. The young defensemen have been terrific for the Sens, but the performance of the veterans might be even more surprising on some levels. During the home opener, both Filip Kuba and Sergei Gonchar were booed by the fans during the player introductions. How have they responded? Gonchar was on pace for a 50-point season before injuries slowed him down — but that is exactly the type of offense they were looking for from him when he was signed in the summer of 2010. And Kuba has responded with a team-best plus-9 rating, while logging more than 23 minutes a night.
7. But it hasn’t been all rosy on the Sens back end. The club has given up a staggering 136 goals — by far the most of any team currently holding down a playoff spot. Craig Anderson played his best game of the season on Thursday night against Tampa, but haven’t received that type of goaltending on a consistent basis. It’s reflected in Anderson’s stats: In his 19 wins, he has a 2.14 GAA and a .929 save percentage. In his 15 losses, he has a 4.47 GAA and a .867 save percentage. Anderson has proven he can be solid when he gets on a roll and Sens fans can hope that he’s finding his game at the right time.
8. The Sens have been able to overcome a lot of their defensive shortcomings this season, thanks in large part to their offensive firepower. This might be the most surprising aspect of the Sens this season, considering they finished 29th in scoring last season. Only three teams in the Eastern Conference have scored more goals than Ottawa – who have managed to score more than Pittsburgh and Washington. Remember, this is the team that took a flyer on Nikita Filatov in the summer because they weren’t sure where their goals were coming from. But at the halfway point of the season, they have five players — Spezza, Alfredsson, Michalek, Smith and Foligno — on pace for 20 goals this season. Last year, only Jason Spezza cracked the 20-goal plateau.
9. It’s not only how often the Sens are scoring, but more importantly, when they are scoring. The club has scored 56 goals in the third period — the most out of any team in the NHL. They have routinely staged dramatic late-game comebacks this season, winning five games when trailing heading into the third period. In the past week alone, they’ve erased 2-0 and 3-0 deficits against New Jersey and Calgary respectively. This team is playing with a confidence that we haven’t seen around here since the Stanley Cup run in 2007.
10. Finally, most of that confidence can be attributed to new head coach Paul MacLean. When the club stumbled out of the gates with just one win in six games, most analysts figured that the rookie head coach was in for a long season. But the players have bought into MacLean’s system and he has given everyone on the team a legitimate role. Kevin Dineen is probably the coach of the year at the halfway point for the job he’s done in Florida, but MacLean is definitely in the Jack Adams mix right now. And considering the coaching carousel that has been in full swing here in Ottawa over the past four years, perhaps this is the most significant storyline from the first half of the season.