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They gathered at the boards by the home team bench, some players leaning on their sticks, others down on one knee as the coach took his marker and began drawing X's and O's on the board.

Better, given that it was an Ottawa Senators practice, head coach Paul MacLean might stick entirely to X's.

As in: Don't walk under ladders. Avoid cracks in the sidewalk. Beware of black cats.

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If bad luck wore skates, it would be an Ottawa Senator.

They lost their best forward when Jason Spezza's back went under the surgeon's knife. They lost the NHL's best defenceman when an opponent's skate sliced into Erik Karlsson's heel. They lost the NHL's top goaltender when another opponent crashed into Craig Anderson's ankle.

And then it got really bad.

They lost last season's top goal scorer, Milan Michalek, to a wonky knee that had to be operated on this week. They lost their most reliable, minute-gobbling defenceman when Marc Methot went down with what appeared to be an injury to his right leg.

And yet, these same Senators – fresh off a 5-3 come-from-behind victory over the New York Islanders last Tuesday – are in fifth place at the 30-game mark and may, incredulously, see the likes of Spezza and Karlsson return for playoff duty when it had originally been said that their seasons were over.

How can this be? What is allowing this team – not even a sure bet for the playoffs when they had their stars – to shine so brightly when surrounded by such darkness?

"Young and dumb," forward Erik Condra says. "That's what the old guys say. We just play our game."

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Chris Phillips, the 35-year-old defenceman who has been with the Sens his entire career, says Condra is onto something.

"One of the advantages of having young guys and inexperienced guys," Phillips says, "is they just go out and play – and not be worrying about mistakes or what's been going on. Nobody's overthinking anything. We have a lot of fun practice days, and game days we're just going out … take thinking out of the game. Just go out and play."

"There's no quit in our game," adds defenceman Eric Gryba, one of many call-ups from the AHL farm team in Binghamton, N.Y.

They don't quit, and from last season through this season have shown a resiliency in third periods that causes a nervous rash to break out in teams that take early leads on them.

Condra told a story Wednesday about how the team went into its Long Island dressing room last Tuesday down 3-1 after two periods. "We got 'em right where we want 'em," Phillips told his teammates. Twenty minutes later, the Senators had scored four unanswered goals.

While the "young and dumb" are part of the story, a larger part concerns the old and smart.

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Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson, 40, is playing as well as he has in years, notching his 1,100th NHL point Tuesday. Phillips is steady. Sergei Gonchar, 38, had a goal and two assists at Long Island to take over the team scoring lead.

"He's been nothing but spectacular the last 10, 15 games," says 22-year-old rookie defenceman Patrick Wiercioch, who has lately been paired with the crafty Russian.

None of this was supposed to happen. The Senators, without Spezza and then Karlsson and then Anderson, were certain to collapse. Gonchar would be dealt away before the trading deadline.

Alfredsson can fully understand that line of thought. But, he says, all the changes and shifting of roles has created a situation where his team is playing a style of hockey he calls "refreshing." They call themselves "The Pesky Sens" and it's an apt phrase.

"We just never give up," he says. "After we had some success early with some of the injuries, [we realized] we can do this."

"We still have high expectations. We have high standards. We're not just going to go out there and hope that we do well."

With 18 games remaining, they have to do well to maintain their playoff position. Thursday marks the start of a five-game homestandand then a long road trip while their rink is taken over by the women's world hockey championships. "We're getting into the last leg," coach MacLean says.

First up: the Boston Bruins.

High above where MacLean was moving around his X's and O's, the scoreboard already had the results up: Senators 8, Bruins 6; home outshooting the visitors 42-26.

Someone's idea of a joke, obviously. But then, who's laughing these days at the Senators?

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More


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