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Ottawa Senators centre Jason Spezza tries to keep the puck away from Buffalo Sabres centre Jochen Hecht in game on New Year's Eve 2011. (Timothy T. Ludwig/US PRESSWIRE/Timothy T. Ludwig/US PRESSWIRE)
Ottawa Senators centre Jason Spezza tries to keep the puck away from Buffalo Sabres centre Jochen Hecht in game on New Year's Eve 2011. (Timothy T. Ludwig/US PRESSWIRE/Timothy T. Ludwig/US PRESSWIRE)

Roy MacGregor

Surging Senators prove hockey pundits wrong Add to ...

Given that Monday evening marked the 615th NHL game of the 1,230 that make up the regular season, it’s the perfect time to look at some of the surprises this most unusual year.

The full list would require a newspaper section, not a column: Sidney Crosby returns, Sidney Crosby goes; Bruce Boudreau coaches the Washington Capitals and the Anaheim Ducks in the same week; the Montreal Canadiens’ language crisis; Alexander Ovechkin, superstar or journeyman; Don Cherry apologizes; old Europeans hang on – Teemu Selanne, Nicklas Lidstrom, Daniel Alfredsson, Jaromir Jagr; young Canadians surge – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Tyler Seguin, Claude Giroux; Joffrey Lupul connects with Phil Kessel; scoring leader Henrik Sedin’s failure to garner all-star votes; Brendan Shanahan busier than Judge Judy; lovers of skill saying the red line has to come back; CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) joins PIM, GAA and GWG as significant hockey measures; Coyotes still in Phoenix …

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It may be, however, that the greatest surprise of the season is just down the street and around the corner.

The Ottawa Senators are in fifth place.

You have to be careful not to make too much of that. If the three teams behind them (New Jersey, Toronto, Pittsburgh) simply won the games they are short of the Senators’ total, all three would pass Ottawa in the standings.

But you cannot make too little of it, either. One year ago the Senators were in freefall. Internally, they worked on a drastic plan that would have them move as many bodies as possible before the trade deadline – goaltender Brian Elliott, Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu, Alex Kovalev – and then really get to work in the off-season, firing non-communicating coach Cory Clouston and shaking free of various contracts coming up for renewal.

It was presumed that general manager Bryan Murray would also be gone. If not through natural retirement – he was then 68 – then as the price for signing the underachieving Kovalev to a two-year, $10-million (U.S.) deal, and bringing in expensive but seemingly always injured defenceman Sergei Gonchar. Murray also hired Clouston, who turned the veterans off to a point where the team’s best goal scorer, Dany Heatley, forced a trade that seemed decidedly in favour of the San Jose Sharks, who sent back a scorer whose hands had turned to stone and a player too often injured to judge.

Murray, however, stayed. He even got a contract extension from owner Eugene Melnyk and promptly announced that all this hopeless team needed was a little “tweaking” to make it once again competitive.

Eyes rolled, bellies roared, heads shook. Even the ever hopeful locals predicted seasons in the wilderness and years before the Senators, Stanley Cup finalists in 2007, would see the playoffs again.

Well, we were all wrong and perhaps today should admit to it. The Heatley trade now looks in Murray’s favour, as Milan Michalek has been healthy and has 20 goals compared to Heatley’s 13. Murray’s new coach, Paul MacLean, has earned the trust of the veterans and the worship of the youngsters and should be an early consideration for NHL coach of the year in his rookie season. Four Senators – defenceman Erik Karlsson, Alfredsson, Michalek and Jason Spezza – led the all-star voting, and even if the voting is a bit of a farce, it shows how well liked this year’s team is by locals with cellphones and laptops.

Most intriguing of all is how this once dismissed team comes back in third periods, something once considered nigh impossible in the NHL. It happened again Sunday when the Senators were down 4-2 to the Philadelphia Flyers entering the final period and stormed back to win 6-4.

Third-period comebacks now become the Senators’ signature for this season.

“It’s inexplicable,” Spezza says. “It’s been a blast. We prefer not to have to win them in such dramatic fashion, but we’ll take it.”

“It’s an attitude we’ve had since the first day of training camp,” MacLean adds. “We want to be known as a team that plays a full game.”

“We want the fans to keep coming,” Karlsson says jokingly, “so we got to find a way to make it exciting.”

And they have, much to the surprise of a great many experts who knew so much better.

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