OTTAWA - Jason Spezza and the Senators are feeling good about their game these days, and for good reason. Following a slow start to the NHL season, things are looking up in Ottawa.
Spezza has been hampered by groin problems that forced him to miss five of the Senators’first 13 games, but he recorded four points against the New York Islanders on Thursday. Meanwhile, Ottawa won for the fourth time in the past five outings to climb back to the .500 mark.
"Last night was the best I’ve felt (all season)," Spezza said after Friday’s practice. "I can feel the health’s coming around. I worked hard this summer and I got off to an unfortunate start by being banged up early, but, hopefully, all that’s kind of behind me and I can focus on playing and not just on staying healthy.
"When I’m skating well, it’s not as much work for me to get up and down the ice, and that’s usually when my game’s best. It felt good last night to not worry about some aches and pains and to get over that."
A couple of weeks ago, the Senators were in rough shape having lost five of the first six games of the season.
The start prompted general manager Bryan Murray to go public with his frustration and his desire to improve his hockey team through trades, even admitting that he’d already spoken with other teams about potential deals.
Whether or not that was just rhetoric to help his team shape up, it seems to have worked since more nights than not, Ottawa’s been an improved hockey team despite missing Spezza for some of those games and top-line left-winger Milan Michalek (tendinitis in knee), among others, to injury.
The Senators have won five of seven since Murray’s comments.
"From the games that I watched when we won and the last couple of games, I think it’s just confidence with the puck. You can tell guys have a little more poise," Spezza said of the Senators’improved play. "When you lose a few in a row, everybody grips the sticks a little bit tighter and we’re a little bit more poised of a team when we’re winning a few games. We have to keep that and if we lose a game we can’t panic and we have to make sure we keep that composure."
Spezza's offensive outburst Thursday gave him nine points in eight games.
Goals had been hard to come by, but with the exception of a 4-0 loss to the Boston Bruins last Saturday, Ottawa’s offence is up, scoring 17 times in their past four wins despite having to shuffle the team’s top two lines because of injuries and while still looking for first goals from regular forwards Nick Foligno, Peter Regin and Chris Neil.
Meanwhile, goaltender Brian Elliott, who’s started nine straight games since Pascal Leclaire went down with a groin injury, has helped limit the opposition to just eight goals in those victories.
"We got back on track just playing our game," Senators centre Chris Kelly said. "We’re playing together, we’re playing as five-man units as opposed to being spread out playing forward and defence."
The Senators have benefited from playing fellow struggling teams lately in beating the Islanders, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and Phoenix Coyotes, but Kelly says that Ottawa’s been able to get a lead on them and playing from in front makes a big difference.
"The last few games we’ve happened to get the lead and the game’s an easier game to play when you’re playing with the lead as opposed to trying to open it up and play from behind. That’s when you get in trouble," Kelly said. "We’re a bit more confident in our abilities now than maybe we were a couple of weeks ago."
Coach Cory Clouston said Friday that the Senators, who re-assigned forward Zack Smith to Binghamton of the AHL, have shown a tendency to sit back a little too much for his liking late in games and they’ve yet to put together full 60-minute efforts, so there’s still room for improvement.
"We’ve sat back a little bit too much once we get a lead and we’ve got to keep aggressive," Spezza agreed. "We’re an aggressive team and when we’re forechecking, we’re at our best."
Still, given where they were a couple of weeks earlier, it’s a vast improvement and the Senators will try to keep it going Saturday, when they travel to the Bell Centre in Montreal to face the Canadiens, who are in Buffalo to play the Sabres on Friday.
Saturday nights have not been kind to the Senators so far this year. They’ve gone 0-4 and have been outscored 16-4, including a pair of losses to the Habs, so it’ll be a bit of a measuring stick.
"They’re a team that had success last year in the playoffs, they’ve played well this year and beat us twice," Spezza said. "You want to make sure you win these games and, if you do win these games, you get a lot of confidence out of them. They’re more than just a game against any other team."