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Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean talk to media following practice during an off day in first round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey at the Scotiabank Place in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. The Senators lead the series 3-1 against the Montreal Canadiens. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean talk to media following practice during an off day in first round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey at the Scotiabank Place in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. The Senators lead the series 3-1 against the Montreal Canadiens. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

ROY MacGREGOR

Senators prosper from MacLean’s hunches Add to ...

It was the critical moment in Game 4, the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadiens on the verge of determining if Ottawa would go up three games to one or the two teams would be tied at two games apiece.

The Canadiens had the lead, 2-1, with the clock running out. Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson was being pulled in favour of an extra skater and … good grief … there was tiny Cory Conacher leaping over the boards as Ottawa’s extra attacker.

“What the …?” Senators general manager Bryan Murray shouted from his perch high above the stands.

What could head coach Paul MacLean be thinking? Not only had the rookie Conacher been scratched in Game 2 of the series, he hadn’t scored a single point in the playoffs and, worse yet, he had caused the turnover Tuesday night that led to the Canadiens’ second goal, at the moment the winning goal in this crucial match.

Murray couldn’t understand. You want a big presence in front of the net if you get a shot – Chris Neil, perhaps. Not 5 foot 8, 179-pound Cory Conacher. Murray was far from alone in wondering what the …?

But MacLean was using his head and his gut. His head told him that Conacher had the speed to get quickly to the Canadiens’ net if Anderson came off on the fly. His gut told him that Conacher would be driven by guilt for messing up earlier, driven to make amends for letting down his team.

He stuck with Conacher for the ensuing faceoff. “All he said was ‘Go right to the net,’” Conacher remembered. So he did. The puck got there too, bounced out, and little Cory Conacher slammed home the tying goal with 23 seconds left on the clock.

“I guess it was a good move by the coach,” Conacher said next morning, admitting he was “definitely” surprised to be given the assignment.

Such gut-instinctive moves – putting tiny minor-league call-up Jean-Gabriel Pageau on the top line, turning Erik Condra into a key penalty killer, keeping the Senators in the running despite injuries to top performers like Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza and Anderson – have made the 55-year-old MacLean a star in his own right in Ottawa. He even has a striking lookalike, Mike Watson, a local auto-parts sales manager who periodically shows up at the rink and sits behind one of the benches.

On Tuesday, fans showed up at Scotiabank Place wearing Paul MacLean mustaches, Paul MacLean glasses and red T-shirts with MacLean’s face embossed on the front along with the line, “I Am Walrus.”

The line was a reference to Montreal’s Brandon Prust calling the Ottawa coach a “bug-eyed, fat walrus” early in this heated series.

“Bug-eyed?” MacLean responded the next day. “I’ve never been called that before. That’s a new one. Walrus? Ahh, that’s too easy. But I’ll tell you one thing. I am not fat. I might be husky, but I’m not fat. I took offence to that.”

MacLean’s favourite-uncle humour has been in contrast to the impassioned, often angry voice of Montreal coach Michel Therrien, who has accused MacLean of being “classless” for calling a late timeout in a fight-filled Game 3 and “disrespectful” for referring to a Montreal player by his “number” rather than his name.

Since then, no surprise, MacLean has referred to players, even his own, by number.

When it was noted that a lost tooth or two was connected to victories in each of the first three games, MacLean boasted that he had all his teeth. Asked if he wore a mouthguard, the former player said he hadn’t needed one: “I always had a mustache.”

It’s easy to joke when you’re winning, yet MacLean – French-born to a Canadian military family, raised in Antigonish, N.S. – has remained even-keeled during a trying year for the Senators.

Everyone knows he has a tough, perhaps even nasty, streak to call on if needed. You don’t spend 10 years in the NHL (mostly with the Winnipeg Jets), score 324 goals, 349 assists and rack up 968 minutes in penalties by tickling puppy bellies.

Murray, who knew MacLean from a previous life together with the Anaheim Ducks, had actually interviewed MacLean for the coaching job a few years back, but went instead with the more experienced Craig Hartsburg. Hartsburg did not last a year and was replaced with the intense Cory Clouston, who was fired two years ago. Murray pried MacLean away from the Detroit Red Wings, where he had been learning the job under Mike Babcock.

Murray knew that, after Clouston, he needed a coach who could win back the veteran players but also work with the younger ones, as the Senators wanted to rebuild.

MacLean says he understood this from the start, but also saw the Senators as “a team of opportunity for young players from that day going forward.” And since then, the team’s often surprising success has come as much from unknown minor-leaguers as it has from rejuvenated veterans.

“He’s a leader,” Anderson said. “And everybody in this room respects him. He just has a calming effect when he speaks. He knows how to show video and knows how to talk to get guys to listen and change behaviours. I think that’s just a characteristic of a great leader.

“I wanted somebody I could talk to,” Murray said, “and who could talk to the players. But most important, Paul’s a good guy.” They have coffee every morning and meet most afternoons. They don’t always agree, as in the case of going with Conacher when the need was greatest.

“I still owe the team a little bit more,” Conacher said.

And MacLean, if anyone can, will get it out of him.

@RoyMacG

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