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(ELLEN OZIER)
(ELLEN OZIER)

Sens looking to tighten up leaky defence Add to ...

Chris Phillips realizes the numbers don't make for pretty viewing, so the defenceman is hoping the rest of the NHL season goes better than the first quarter did for him and the other Ottawa Senators.

They passed the quarter mark of the campaign with a 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Monday night, a win that left them .500 at 10-10-1 and hardly burning up the league.

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A large part of their struggles so far have come in their own end, where the Senators have had to adapt to personnel changes. So it's triumphs like Monday's that provide optimism that things can get better.

"Having different guys to play with has been a bit of an adjustment for everybody and even throughout the season we've been playing with different guys," Phillips said Tuesday following a practice in preparation for Wednesday's visit by the Dallas Stars.

"I think for the most part, after a slow start, we're starting to come around."

The Senators' defensive struggles are reflected in the plus-minute ratings, where players like Phillips, a longtime defensive stalwart, and newcomer Sergei Gonchar rank among the NHL's worst.

Before Tuesday's games, Gonchar, signed in the off-season to a US$16.5-million, three-year deal as a free agent from Pittsburgh, ranked 712th among the league's 714 players with a minus-12 rating. New York Islanders teammates James Wisniewski and John Tavares ranked Nos. 713 and 714, respectively, at minus-15.

At minus-11 Phillips checks in at No. 708, a number he's not proud of.

Ottawa's other defencemen at least hold a little better standing.

Sophomore Erik Karlsson, who's been scratched because of a recent slump, is minus-5. Chris Campoli and Filip Kuba carry a minus-3 rating, while the little-used Brian Lee (plus-1), David Hale (plus-2) and Matt Carkner (plus-4) are the only plus players among the bunch.

"It's probably a bigger looked at stat for a player like me than some of the other guys and it looks terrible right now," Phillips said.

"There are lots of times when it's a skewed stat and when you're changing - just getting on, just getting off, whatever - but, when you average it out, if you're getting minuses, you're getting scored against and you'd obviously like that to turn around.

"Personally, I feel like the game is coming around, but I'm still collecting minuses. It's frustrating and it always seems like once you're down, it's even a tougher one to climb back up the other way. Hopefully, over the next three-quarters of the season, it will turn around."

The Senators defence had its work cut out over the first quarter of the season adapting to off-season changes.

Gone as a result of free agency over the off-season were Phillips' long-time blue-line partner Anton Volchenkov, who signed with the New Jersey Devils. Andy Sutton, acquired before the last trade deadline, was also allowed to walk away and joined the Anaheim Ducks. Kuba missed the first 16 games of the year while recovering from a fractured bone in his leg suffered at the start of training camp.

The biggest loss was that of Volchenkov, who spent seven seasons in Ottawa, most often alongside Phillips.

The Russian, who suffered a broken nose last month that put him out of the lineup, provided a physical presence to the Senators' blue-line and showed an uncanny knack for helping out his goaltenders by blocking shots.

Those were both dimensions that the six-foot-six, 245-pound Sutton, who's only recently returned to the Ducks' lineup because of a broken thumb, also added.

Fans to local call-in shows insist the missing shot-blocking element has had its impact on the Senators, but Phillips, while not trying to devalue the contributions of Volchenkov and Sutton, said that's had less of an effect than fans and the media might believe.

"When you have it, you appreciate it," he said. "At the same time, it doesn't always come down to that. You're not going to be drafting defencemen because they can block shots. You've got to be able to skate, you've got to be able to move, pass the puck."

That's exactly what Gonchar was brought in to do. The 36-year-old Russian is more about mobility and moving the puck quickly than playing physical and blocking shots.

"He can break the puck out by himself, he can skate it, he's got the ability and talent to do that and he makes things happen and it's a fresh look for us," Phillips said.

While Gonchar has left something to be desired defensively, he's produced with four goals and 10 assists in 21 games.

He's also expected to act as a mentor to the 20-year-old Karlsson, who, in his second season, has also been good offensively with four goals and seven assists through 20 games.

Unfortunately, he's guilty of frequently taking penalties and coughing up the puck. Things have gotten so bad that he was scratched from Monday night's game in favour of Hale, although coach Cory Clouston said Karlsson was also given the night off because he was ill.

Hale, who first filled in for Kuba during his injury, took Karlsson's place. Hale has been quietly solid since being signed in the summer. Coincidence or not, the Senators are 8-3-0 when he plays and 2-7-1 when he doesn't, and Karlsson may spend Wednesday's game sitting, too.

"Most of the guys who came in young have gone through it," Karlsson said. "As long as the team wins, I'm happy. And whenever the chance comes (to get back in), you've got to be ready to take it."

Notes: Senators winger Chris Neil, who left Monday's game early with an upper-body injury and didn't return, is expected to play Wednesday against Dallas. ... Gonchar, Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher and Alex Kovalev, who became the 76th player and just the third Russian in NHL history to reach 1,000 career points Monday, all missed Tuesday's practice, but are expected to be back against the Stars. ... Spezza caught Leclaire with a shot above the padding on his right knee and he was shaken up, but he should be OK to play if they start him.

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