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Alfredsson on a mission as captain leads Senators to brink of conference final

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

The 34-year-old has led the attack, battled on the boards for pucks, played smart defence and set an example his younger teammates have been eager to follow.

Now he has led the Senators to a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven NHL Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Devils. They can secure a spot in the conference final for only the second time in team history with a win on Saturday night in New Jersey 8 p.m. ET.

After last spring's playoff disappointment, a quick second-round exit at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres with Alfredsson out of fuel after a long season, the Senators are looking like genuine Stanley Cup contenders.

And their captain, now with a shaved head after years of playing with a springy red mop that stuck out of his helmet, looks like a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate for most valuable player in the post-season.

"It's a lot of fun," Alfredsson said Thursday. "When you don't play well, it's frustrating because you know what you're capable of.

"I think I'm a better player this year than I was last year, for whatever reasons. I felt confident going into the playoffs. And playing with (Dany) Heatley and (Jason) Spezza doesn't hurt, either."

The flashy trio put together by coach Bryan Murray late in the regular season was productive in the opening round against Pittsburgh, but then the Senators scoring was spread across all four lines.

Against New Jersey - matched against one of the best checking lines in hockey of John Madden, Jay Pandolfo and Sergei Brylin, and facing star goaltender Martin Brodeur - it has shone.

Alfredsson's line has either scored or been on the ice for nine of the 12 goals Ottawa has produced in four games against the Devils.

His opening goal 4:34 into a 3-2 win in Game 4 on Wednesday night was spectacular, partly because the record crowd of 20,248 at Scotiabank Place was chanting "Alfie! Alfie!" when he one-timed Heatley's pass behind Brodeur.

"I didn't hear it," he admitted. "When you're on the ice, during play, there could be 10 or there could be 20,000 people in the stands and you couldn't tell because you're so focused. You notice it a bit when the play stops."

The Senators could use more scoring from other lines, although the trio centred by Mike Fisher has produced a goal in each of the last two games and looks to be coming on.

Murray explained that the Alfredsson line has also prevented goals just by stepping onto the ice. Whenever they do, the Madden line comes on, which means the Devils' Egg Line of Patrick Elias, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez gets less ice time.

Murray has coached some star players since his debut with Washington in the early 1980s, like Mike Gartner and Steve Yzerman later with Detroit, and doesn't like to make comparisons.

But he said Alfredsson has "a high ranking among the guys I've coached.

"He's a hard-working, character guy who makes everyone he plays with better."

Murray was mildly critical of Alfredsson after last year's playoffs, saying he looked to be trying to do too much on the ice.

Alfredsson admits he pushed too hard to compensate for fatigue. He had won an Olympic gold medal with Sweden during the season and posted career highs of 43 goals and 103 points in the NHL regular season. By playoff time, he was worn out.

He didn't have a great start to this season, either, but he got his focus back after returning from a five-game layoff with a hip injury in December and now feels in top form.

"When I feel like I do now, it's fun," he said. "I love going into battles in the corners and just trying to beat guys off the puck and create things.

"The competition, that's the thing."

That gives the entire bench a lift.

"Guys feed off that," said Fisher. "When you see your captain out there working, other guys just want to follow suit."

Alfredsson's play so far is similar to that of veteran centre Rod Brind'Amour, who seemed to carry the Carolina Hurricanes to the Cup through sheer willpower.

Like Brind'Amour, Alfredsson has played a long time (11 NHL seasons) without winning a Cup.

The Senators have fallen short in the playoffs repeatedly despite loads of young talent since the late 1990s, to the point where the word "underachievers" is often affixed to their name.

Murray and general manager John Muckler have worked to fix that by changing the mix of players and nurturing a tougher, more disciplined attitude on the team.

This Senators team doesn't shy away from hits, from battles on the boards or from going down to block shots.

"The whole group is different, the confidence of the group is different," said Murray. "Experience does that.

"The group has bought into what we want to do and the leadership in the room has really made a difference."

Muckler, part of the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, said he saw first-hand that it takes time for leaders to develop and that may also be the case with Alfredsson.

"Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier weren't leaders right away," he said. "They had to learn it.

"They went though some tough times, too. They had to grow."

The Senators had a day off practice Thursday. They are due back on the ice Friday morning and then fly to New Jersey.


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