OTTAWA – The Ottawa Senators would like to think they’ve hit their stride as they enjoy a four-game winning streak, but they know all too well how quickly things can change.
This has been a season of inconsistency for the Senators, who on Monday were preparing for a three-game, eight-day road trip that will feature the return of captain Jason Spezza.
Strangely enough, the winning streak came while Spezza was sidelined with an hip injury.
Spezza will return to the lineup Wednesday when the team takes on the Colorado Avalanche and says that all he wants to do is help extend the streak.
“In the short term I want to make sure that wherever I play I make sure I kind of help the group out, but for the long term I know I have to get to playing good hockey,” Spezza said. “We’re all disappointed how the first half went. I don’t think I had a very good first half or the group had a very good first half, but there are signs of things coming.
“I’ve been out of the lineup before and we’ve won some games and I’ve been out and we’ve lost, but when I’ve been out before we were able to maintain it when I came back and I just hope to add to the group.”
Spezza said he felt no pressure about upsetting the chemistry of a winning lineup by his return, but teammates realize how badly he will want to win.
“It is a little bit of pressure for him coming back, but we’re confident in that we need him in the lineup,” said centre Zack Smith. “We were waiting for him to get back and it’s a good opportunity and for him there shouldn’t be that much pressure on him, but he’s the captain so he’s probably going to feel it.”
In Spezza’s absence, Senators coach Paul MacLean had Mike Zibanejad play centre between Milan Michalek and Cory Conacher. The trio proved to be quite successful over the course of the four games.
Rather than dismantle the line, MacLean had Spezza playing with Zack Smith on his left and Mark Stone on his right at practice Monday morning.
The experiment could be short lived as MacLean is well known for juggling his lines, but in the interim it allows the Zibanejad line to remain intact and give Spezza a couple of big wingers who have played well of late.
“I’m looking forward to playing with Jason,” said Smith. “For (Stone and I) it’s a good opportunity and hopefully we get a line going and score some goals.”
Having Spezza and Smith on the same line will also give the Senators an advantage in the faceoff circle as Spezza is right-handed and Smith is left.
With eight of their 12 games in January on the road the Senators are well aware that a solid record away from the Canadian Tire Centre could go a long way towards solidifying a playoff spot. The Senators are 8-8-3 on the road to this point.
“We’ve had some good success at home and been a little more comfortable playing at home,” said Smith. “So it will be nice to get on the road and see if that can carry over too. We’ve had some good games, some success on the road so it hasn’t been a problem for us.”
Heading into Monday night’s games the Senators were just two points back of the Toronto Maple Leafs for the final wild card spot in the East.
“If you want to be considered an elite team you’ve got to be able to play anywhere,” said MacLean. “We know we’re not considered an elite team at this point, but that’s what we’re working towards and in order to do that you have to be good on the road. We believe our game is getting more consistent.”
Spezza added that the team is feeling confident about itself and the mood amongst players is better.
“It’s encouraging (that we won),” said Spezza. “I think we’ve been pretty close for a long time and finding ways to lose hockey games and now we seem to have found a way to win some hockey games and (goaltender Craig Anderson) has played great for us. Hopefully we can get on a roll here.”
Notes: Chris Neil, who is out with a lower body injury, joined the team on the trip, but isn’t expected to play until possibly the final game. MacLean had not yet made a decision on his starting goaltender for Wednesday’s game, but this will mark Anderson’s first return to Colorado since being traded to Ottawa in February 2011. Director of player personnel Pierre Dorion, who was in Malmo, Sweden for the World Junior Championships, says the team was impressed with most of its draft picks that participated in the tournament. Curtis Lazar, who represented Canada, left a significant impression with Dorion who says he has shown significant growth since attending the Senators training camp in September. “I think we have a very good prospect there.”