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

MacLean deserves credit for Sens run Add to ...

There are good hires and then there are great hires.

And Paul MacLean looks to be one of the best coaching additions we've seen in the NHL in quite some time.

For all the credit heaped on Erik Karlsson or Jason Spezza for the Ottawa Senators' terrific season – which now heads to New York for a pivotal Game 5 on Saturday night – MacLean deserves the most of it, along with his excellent assistants Mark Reeds and Dave Cameron.

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This is an Ottawa team that leapt up the standings, improving by 18 points, and is now right there with the top team in the Eastern Conference after four hard fought playoff games.

That 18-point improvement wasn't the biggest in the NHL this season – in fact, four other teams went up by 20 points or more in what could be a year-to-year record: St. Louis, Florida, New Jersey and Colorado.

Ottawa's rise, however, was probably the most surprising, given they made no major off-season additions and went into the fall with youngsters all throughout the roster as part of a rebuild on the fly.

But no team improved its goal production more, as the Sens went from the second lowest scoring team in the league to fourth overall this year, a rise of 0.64 goals per game that went with a small decrease in goals against.

Beyond that, Ottawa simply became far better at holding onto the puck this year, as simple as that sounds.

Working all those years as an assistant under Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, MacLean obviously learned that a strong possession game is vital to winning, and he put his players in positions to succeed to improve in that area.

Whereas Spezza was for some reason taking faceoffs more often in the defensive zone than the offensive under former coach Cory Clouston, that changed dramatically under MacLean. (His zone start rose from 47 per cent to 59 per cent.)

Whereas Karlsson was asked to kill penalties for 1:28 a game under Clouston, that went away almost entirely under MacLean, who instead played him an extra 2.5 minutes a game at even strength.

There were little tweaks like that all throughout Ottawa's lineup, and they paid off not only in that extra offence, but in far better possession numbers.

The Sens increased their shots on goal this season more than any other team (2.4 a game) and increased their shot differential, save percentage, power play and even strength goal differential, too.

That explains why, at least in part, even without captain Daniel Alfredsson (who also had a terrific bounce back year under MacLean) the last two and a half games, Ottawa has been able to skate with the Rangers in every night in these playoffs.

And more than all the numbers, what the coaching staff has been able to do is get this group to turn the page on a disastrous 2010-11 season and rebuild their confidence.

Just look at the likes of Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba, who posted career-killing seasons a year ago, and then skated in 22+ minutes a night on a playoff team.

Who could have foreseen all that?

Finally, with their fourth coach in four years, the Sens have some stability. They have someone with the right personality for this team, coaxing career years out of a half dozen of them, and for who the team motto of "family" seems to fit like a glove.

(Exhibit A is that terrific jumping team huddle they had after Game 4's overtime winner.)

In a postseason where fights and cheap shots and wars of words have gotten all the headlines, MacLean is the antithesis of all that – a relatively quiet NHL gentleman who talks more about honesty and listening to his players than simply getting them to perform.

It doesn't get a lot of attention around the league with all the other nonsense going on, but it should. Winning with class and integrity is an underrated commodity, after all.

Given where they've come from, if Ottawa wins this series, MacLean will have earned coach of the year honours already – even if the Jack Adams winds up going to someone else.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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