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Ottawa Senators head coach Paul MacLean (BLAIR GABLE/Reuters)
Ottawa Senators head coach Paul MacLean (BLAIR GABLE/Reuters)

Duhatschek: MacLean the perfect mix of strategy, motivation and comedy Add to ...

The most remarkable part about Erik Karlsson’s unexpected return from a lacerated Achilles tendon Thursday night is how Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean almost predicted exactly how it might unfold.

Babe Ruth, move over.

On the morning of the game against the Washington Capitals, MacLean suggested he had a plan and it called for Karlsson to see 35 minutes of playing time and ultimately be named the game’s first star. Hah. It produced laughs all around. But as Senators fans know by now, the message was delivered in MacLean’s usual deadpan way – where there is a grain of truth mixed in with something uttered mostly tongue-in-cheek.

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That is MacLean’s personal style and one of the many reasons he is the odds-on favorite to win the NHL’s coach-of-the-year award in 2013, the best of a number of worthy Jack Adams candidates.

MacLean is part strategist, part motivator and part stand-up comic, which seem to be the three primary criteria for a successful NHL coaching these days. You need players adhering to a system – which can change, depending upon how many times you lose a key piece of your organizational puzzle.

The easiest way to get the full buy-in is to keep things as light as possible. Hockey is still, after all, a game. Hockey is still supposed to fun. In the playoffs, pressure so often derails a team faced with high expectations – and, generally, the most accomplished coaches find ways to take the pressure off their players. Some do it in the manner of John Tortorella, the New York Rangers coach – by being so outrageous that he becomes the focal point. Of course, Tortorella also believes in calling his players out and that eventually wears on the psyche of the group. How much of New York’s troubles this season could be blamed on the possibility that the Rangers were finally tuning him out? The playoffs will likely provide the answers, although a couple of half-hearted efforts this week against opponents from the Southleast Division, with a playoff berth on the line, make you wonder.

Meantime, back in Ottawa, you could just tell how much trust Karlsson had in MacLean and his methods and his bench coaching abilities. Speaking of MacLean, Karlsson noted how, “coach has a good understanding of the game and he’s going to realize what needs to be done. I know that he’s going to take good care of me and the rest of the team and if it ends up that I’m playing 10 minutes, then I’ll do that as long as it’s a good 10 minutes.”

What an endorsement - and it likely provides a clue as to why the Senators, against long odds, managed to stay competitive through all the challenges of their injury-filled season.

Think back to last year, when the Senators qualified for the postseason, in a year when some thought they might fall to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

Their three leading scorers were Jason Spezza (84 points), Karlsson (78 points), and Milan Michalek (60 points, including a team-leading 35 goals). That’s 222 scoring points from three years on a team that was reasonably good offensively and managed 249 goals, the same as the President’s Trophy winners, the Vancouver Canucks. From there, however, the production dropped way off – and their No. 5 scorer last year, Nick Foligno (47 points) ended up getting traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Spezza, Karlsson and Michalek collectively missed only eight games last year. This year, in just a 48-game sprint, Michalek missed 25, Karlsson 31 and Spezza is at 41 and counting, recovering from back surgery that hasn’t come around as quickly as he, and the Senators, had hoped.

But with defenceman Jared Cowen unexpectedly playing again and Karlsson having such an impact in his first game back – two points, a game high 27 minutes of ice time, and yes, according to the game sheet, a first star selection – the Senators could be a handful for any team they’ll run into in the opening round. Last year, Ottawa gave the first-place Rangers all they could handle in the first round – up 3-2 in the series, before losing a couple of nail-biters, 3-2 and 2-1. They swept the season series from the Capitals, and even if Washington appeared to be going through the motions a little in Thursday night’s loss, after clinching a playoff spot two nights earlier – they have to be wary of the threat the Senators pose.

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