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Sens unleashing defensive side

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Ottawa Senators have long been labeled as a finesse team that can't survive in the gritty landscape of playoff hockey, but those days are beginning to change.

It's no secret that the key to Ottawa's success over the last decade has been its ability to score in bunches, but this year the Sens are also featuring an impressive brand of team defense. So far, this new style of play has made a huge difference in the results as Ottawa has advanced to the Eastern Conference finals while posting an impressive playoff record of 9-2.

That's not to say that the Senators have lost the ability to push the puck up ice, but they have learned how to play with a lead and bury opponents when they have the chance.

Ottawa displayed both its traditional high-powered offense and its new defensive prowess in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against Buffalo. The Senators won the contest 5-2 and allowed the Sabres to take just 20 shots on net.

Dany Heatley
The Ottawa Senators have one of the NHL's best offensive lines.

The opener of the conference finals was tied at 2-2 heading into the third period, but Ottawa thoroughly dominated the final 20 minutes of the contest. After Oleg Saprykin scored just under eight minutes into the third, the Senators suffocated the Sabres the rest of the way.

Buffalo seemed incapable of generating any type of offense in the third, and, instead of mounting a comeback fell behind 4-2 with over four minutes left before ultimately allowing Ottawa to score an empty-net tally as well.

"We've been a very good team in the third period," Senators head coach Bryan Murray said. "Especially in the latter part of the season. Our level of play in the third has been outstanding and our guys believe they can keep it up night after night."

All told, the Sabres took just five shots on net in the third period and never really gave their fans any reason to shout in the final stanza.

What happened in Game 1 at Buffalo was not simply a one-time thing for the Senators because the club has been the most dominant team in the playoffs this year in terms of goal differential. Ottawa is outscoring opponents by a 38-23 margin in the postseason, giving them a plus-15 goal differential -- the best mark among teams left in the tournament.

With center Jason Spezza and wingers Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley, the Senators have one of the NHL's best offensive lines and that unit provides the bulk of the scoring for Ottawa. However, Alfredsson, the team's captain and one of the league's smartest players, makes sure that his line also helps out in their own zone, albeit with the ultimate goal of stealing the puck and charging up ice for a scoring opportunity of their own.

The remaining lines and defensive corps for Ottawa are also essential to the club's success as they provide the team with a physical presence that was evident in the opener against Buffalo. That tough side has helped the Sens make it to the conference finals for just the second time in team history.

It would also be unfair to exclude blossoming goaltender Ray Emery from the winning equation, as the 24-year-old netminder has provided a solid backstop for the Senators. The Ontario native is 9-2 with a 2.03 goals against average and .917 save percentage in his second career postseason.

It could be said that the Senators resemble the better New Jersey teams of recent years, of course, without a legendary goaltender like Martin Brodeur between the pipes. Still, Ottawa displays the ability to score early before smothering the opposition with fore-checking and a concerted defensive effort. And while not very likely, it is possible that Emery could approach the success of Brodeur as his career progresses.

The key for Ottawa right now is that it continues with its current style of play. If it does so the team has a good shot to shrug off the finesse stigma, and in the process, help the Sens make the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in team history.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo