Senators might have found that missing chemistry
Thanks to March Madness, it's been a couple of weeks since my last column.
I'm not talking about the true March Madness that takes place each season in the NHL. No, the Worldwide Leader sent me to Pittsburgh to do play-by-play duties for the first two rounds of the Women's NCAA Basketball Tournament.
Still, the women's tournament got me thinking about the Ottawa Senators. It hit me following a conversation with legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. Every year, Summitt has her pick of top recruits. That's what helps your program reach the Sweet 16 for 26 straight tourneys.
I asked Summitt about the challenges of winning, even with the best players.
"The danger comes when the players believe their talents alone are enough to win," Summitt said. "I constantly remind them it's not about style points, it's about being efficient."
That's when I started thinking about the Sens. Year after year, the Senators were a team rich with talent. Scoring came easy, and so did wins. Regular-season wins, that is. When the playoffs rolled around, the Senators transformed into a box of tissues -- soft. Over the past five regular seasons, the Senators' average point total was an eye-opening 106.2. Their average number appearances in the Stanley Cup finals -- zero.
While Ottawa had teams with tremendous skill, those teams were short in the heart, desire and efficiency departments. But, you can now flush those boxes of tissues down the drain. The 2006-07 Sens are more sandpaper than cotton ball! This team is built for a long playoff run.
It took me more than half the season, but I'll admit it -- I'm a believer.
These are not your older brother or sister's Senators. Losing Zdeno Chara and Martin Havlat forced coach Bryan Murray's club to change its style of play. The days of winning games with just offense? History. It's now about work ethic at both ends of the ice.
"My job was to convince them we had to find other ways to put the puck in the net," Murray recently told me. "Hard work would lead to those opportunities and I had to change their mind-set. Two of the guys we depended on in the past were no longer there."
Last season, there was also the gamble in net. With Dominik Hasek on the sidelines with injury, backup netminder Ray Emery was thrown into a position he wasn't prepared for -- the Stanley Cup playoffs. The result was another postseason disappointment, a second-round loss to the Buffalo Sabres.
"The regular season last year came so easy for us, winning games by 6-1, and 6-2," Dany Heatley told me. "But when it came down to the playoffs, the pucks weren't going in the net. When [Murray] changed our style this season, I was concerned I wasn't going to get as many scoring chances. But after talking with coach, he told me by working hard on defense and forechecking aggressively, I will still score as many goals, just in different ways."
Murray added: "The scoring opportunities Dany has gotten for himself this year has come from his hard work on both ends, instead of depending on a teammate to get him his chances."
It took a while before the new mind-set kicked in this season. In fact, after a 2-6 stretch in early December, many were doubting the Sens and speculating on a Murray dismissal. But the turning point in Ottawa's season came when the team elevated its play when facing its biggest adversity.
That rough patch in December was topped off by Jason Spezza's suffering a knee injury on Dec. 21. The team had to dig deep and find a way to fill in that offensive hole. The Sens did just that, going 13-3-1 over their next 17 games.
Heatley, who is working toward his second straight 50-goal season in Ottawa, said, "The chemistry has changed for the better. There's a different feeling in the locker room. We don't care about the past. We've grown up a lot from last year and now we are healthy."
This season, the Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins could continue to battle for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, the winner earning home-ice advantage. Murray didn't seem too concerned over the fourth seed.
"It's not very important unless the series goes to a Game 7, where the deciding game is played in your home rink," Murray said. "But it can work against you too. There's a lot more pressure when you open a series at home. If you don't get off to a good start, the fans and media will let you know about it. When you don't get the home ice, you open on the road and I think that is an advantage.
"In fact, I think the top four teams in each conference should be allowed to choose whether they'd prefer to open up their first-round series at home or on the road. But, of course, they'd still get a Game 7 at home if it was needed."
Not a bad idea. But I've got a feeling the Senators will be in a Stanley Cup final before the NHL puts the Murray rule into effect.
With or without home ice, don't sleep on the Sens. They're no longer pillow-soft.
Hooked on hockey, Linda Cohn is an anchor for ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS. She has been with the network since 1992 and promises a gluttony of glove saves in her weekly column. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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