Senators firing on all cylinders

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Consider the Ottawa Senators' loss to Anaheim in last year's Stanley Cup finals to be nothing more than a minor stumbling block in the path of an emerging NHL juggernaut.

Ottawa has begun this season like it was shot out of a cannon, going 8-1-0 in its first nine games of the year, and it appears that the Senators don't have any lingering confidence issues after getting beat in five games by the Ducks in last year's Cup finals.

It's worth noting that the Minnesota Wild have begun this year without a regulation loss through their first eight games (7-0-1), but Ottawa's steady climb to dominance is, to me, a more interesting storyline at this stage of the season.

The Senators have been one of the strongest teams in the league since solving an early-season lull in 2006-07. After going 6-10-1 in the first 17 games of last season, Ottawa has been nearly unstoppable, and including the 2007 playoffs has played to an incredible 63-23-8 record in its last 94 games.

It's not unusual to see the Senators on a hot streak during the regular season, but the franchise's playoff run last year should have the rest of the NHL taking Ottawa seriously.

Prior to the 2007 playoffs, the Senators had the label of being an underachieving team in the postseason. However, Ottawa effectively changed that perception by winning its first-ever Eastern Conference championship last year. The Sens went 12-3 in the conference playoffs before falling to the Ducks in the Cup finals.

Spezza (#19), Alfredsson (#11) & Heatley (#15)
The trio of Jason Spezza (#19), Daniel Alfredsson (#11) and Dany Heatley (#15) are picking up where they left off in the postseason.
The Senators have notched 100-plus points in four straight seasons and made the playoffs for the 10th consecutive year in 2007. However, last year Ottawa moved past the conference semifinal round for just the second time in club history.

The postseason success of last season has certainly changed the culture of disappointment in Ottawa, where Senators fans are quickly becoming some of the most passionate fans in the league. The Sens have averaged crowds of 19,148 fans through their first five games of the season at Scotiabank Place, which has a seating capacity of 19,153.

One of the reasons Ottawa has been able to carry over last year's playoff progress into early-season success so far has been the play of its potent top-line. In fact, the trio of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza are just picking up where they left off in the postseason.

The top-line was put together prior to the playoffs last spring and transformed Ottawa from an already formidable offense into the most-feared scoring team in the league. The top-line combined for 66 points in 20 playoff games a year ago, with the players posting 22 points apiece.

The results have been similar for the trio this year, as the top three scorers on the Senators are all members of the No. 1 line. Through the first nine games, Alfredsson is leading the club with 13 points (6 goals, 7 assists), Spezza is next with 12 points (1 g, 11a) and Heatley has a team-high seven goals and 11 points.

It would be easy to portray the Senators as a one-trick pony who rely too heavily on the scoring prowess of one line, but Ottawa's top unit has put up points on such a consistent basis that it hardly seems to be an issue.

Ottawa is also highly underrated on defense despite the fact that the Sens have yielded just 18 goals through nine games this year. The Senators forwards do an excellent job of forechecking and the blueline corps is led by a pair of stellar defensemen in Wade Redden and Chris Phillips.

The steady defense of this Ottawa club has helped the team thrive in the early stages of the season despite the absence of No. 1 goaltender Ray Emery, who began the year shelved after undergoing surgery on his wrist.

Emery's play in net was also a big reason for Ottawa's postseason accomplishments last year. The 25-year-old backstop posted a 2.26 goals against average, .907 save percentage and three shutouts in 20 playoff games last year and solidified himself as the Sens No. 1 goaltender.

However, Martin Gerber filled in beautifully for Emery at the start of this season. Gerber is 6-1 with a .936 save percentage and 2.13 GAA in seven games this season to earn the respect and confidence of his teammates. Emery is still Ottawa's top option, but the Senators have found a solid insurance policy in the veteran Gerber.

It's the combination of offensive and defensive weapons that has the Senators playing at the top of their game. The club has outscored its opponents by a combined 30-18 margin this season, giving Ottawa the league's second-best goal differential to the Philadelphia Flyers.

The series loss to Anaheim is really the only blemish on Ottawa's record since forming the line of Alfredsson, Heatley, and Spezza, and the Senators have to be happy that this year's version of the Ducks doesn't look nearly as good as it did last year. In fact, Anaheim has stumbled out of the gates this year and may be relinquishing the title of Stanley Cup front-runner to Ottawa.

After all, Anaheim is without 2007 Conn Smythe winner Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne, who led the team with 94 points in 2006-07. Both players' careers are currently in limbo as they mull over retirement. Niedermayer is still under contract with the Ducks and is on the suspended list for not reporting to the club, but all will be forgiven if he decides to return. Selanne, on the other hand, is an unrestricted free agent, but will only return to Anaheim if he decides to play hockey this year.

The Senators came into this season as one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup and they have somehow improved their standing as one of the NHL's top teams.

If Ottawa's play early this season is any indication of how the rest of the season is going to go, beating the Senators should be a daunting task for the rest of the league.

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Dan Di Sciullo
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