Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 1/23/12
Five days into their Pacific Division swing, the Ottawa Senators weren't exactly showing the traits of a team coming off a loss the day before while stationed nearly 3,000 miles away from home. Loose and upbeat, the club practiced Sunday at the Toyota Sports Center, the training facility of the Los Angeles Kings and Lakers, and showed all the characteristics of a team enjoying the battle. As teammates called out updates of the AFC Championship Game from the locker room, Daniel Alfredsson whizzed a puck at the glass near where defenseman Erik Karlsson held court in front of a handful of reporters. "That's a young one," the 21-year-old Karlsson joked about the 39-year-old Alfredsson. The Senators, under first-year head coach Paul MacLean, have offered as equally surprising of a season as the Buffalo Sabres, but for an entirely opposite reason. Picked in nearly all previews to finish toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings with major questions regarding their defense and goaltending, Ottawa has instead emerged as a confident team battling for home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Senators are only four points behind the New York Rangers in the competition for the East's top seed. MacLean, part of the Mike Babcock coaching tree that also begot San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan, was an assistant in Anaheim when the seventh-seeded Ducks made a Cinderella to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2003, where the lost to the New Jersey Devils. In 2008 he went to assist Babcock in Detroit, where he won the Stanley Cup as an assistant when the Red Wings beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I'm a big believer that the best CEOs in the country . . . their people move on and do things," Babcock said to NHL.com correspondent Brian Hedger earlier this season. "Some people stifle people and don't let them grow and there's no succession plan. I don't believe in that. I believe that not just for players, but for coaches, it speaks highly of your organization if people are growing and developing and moving on. I'm proud of it. I've got lots of guys who I've coached with who are coaches now. I'm proud of that fact. To me, that's what it's all about." It's not just accomplished NHL coaches professing their appreciation for the first-year coach, it's the players, too. Kyle Turris, a Senator for all of five weeks since his mid-December trade from Phoenix, has 4 goals, 13 points and a plus-11 rating in his 18 games in Ottawa and spoke highly of the coach primarily responsible for providing a boost to the team's morale. "Coach MacLean is giving the team and myself confidence, allowing us to play our game and have fun," Turris said. "Having that confidence makes you a 100 times better hockey player. The game and majority of sports is all about confidence, and he has instilled that in me from Day 1." Particularly encouraging for the organization is that MacLean appears to have brought stability to one of the more insecure coaching positions in the NHL. Bryan Murray, John Paddock, Craig Hartsburg and Cory Clouston have all coached the Senators since the team's run to the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals. Since Jacques Martin's 1996-2002 tenure behind the bench that guided Ottawa to respectability and laid the groundwork for the club to emerge as Canada's most formidable franchise for much of last decade, no coach has lasted for three full seasons at Scotiabank Place. Martin won the club's only Jack Adams Award after guiding the team to a Northeast Division title in 1999 after a fifth-place finish the year before. "Our goal is to build a foundation here. Right now, we still have a long, long way to go," MacLean said to Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun. "We just want to be consistent on a nightly basis. "I still think we have a long way to go. We're happy with where we are and we're pleased that our fans are happy with the way the team is playing, but we understand that there are a lot of games left to play and an awful lot can still happen." MacLean's positivity has infected a locker room that has emerged as one of the more resilient in the league this winter. In the team's three losses since Christmas prior to Saturday's 2-1 defeat in Anaheim, they've followed their defeats with a pair of four-game winning streaks and a two-game winning streak. The lost again on Monday to LA, 4-1, and will try to get a win in Phoenix before flying home to host the All-Star Game. "You try to win every game, but those games after the losses are real important because it can be kind of a snowball effect if you lose a few in a row," forward Jason Spezza said. "Good teams don't lose too many games in a row it keeps you up there in the standings." There's still work to do. "We're happy with where we are, but we're not comfortable with where we are," Spezza said, admitting that nothing yet has been accomplished, and that finishing the job that they started will be a goal during the season's home stretch. "We feel like we've put ourselves in a good position by doing what we had to do just the first 50 games," Spezza said. "Now a lot of the work begins. We have a lot of divisional games coming up and a lot of four-point games. . . . But we feel like we've put ourselves in a position where now we're in that cluster and a little bit above the cluster, which is giving us a little bit of a chance to get a few wins going into the break, put some pressure on other teams." "We realize in the room we're not the Boston Bruins. They're guaranteed to be in the playoffs, I think, with their record. We know we still have a lot of work to do the next 30 games."
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