OTTAWA – Fans in Ottawa affectionately dubbed Martin Havlat as Mach 9 during his days as a member of the Senators.
These days, compatriot Milan Michalek is sporting the No. 9 in Ottawa after his pre-season acquisition from the San Jose Sharks in the Dany Heatley trade and is proving to be equally worthy of inheriting the moniker.
The big Czech winger has jumped out of the gate as the team’s leader with six goals through the first 11 games and is proving to be a key ingredient of one of the NHL’s best penalty-killing units – a big reason for the Senators’ solid 6-3-2 start to the season.
“We want it to be in the back of the power play’s mind that when he’s out there, he’s a threat,” Senators coach Cory Clouston said Friday. “His intelligence and his skating ability combine together make him very effective.”
The Senators were back at home Friday following a 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning a night earlier in which they’d allowed two goals on six power-play chances for the Lightning.
Still, their 86.5-per-cent success rate at killing penalties stood second best in the league, trailing only Minnesota’s 86.7-per-cent efficiency.
“All the little things make a big difference. Lots of times, those things go unnoticed,” Senators forward Jarkko Ruutu said. “I think your penalty killing is huge.”
Michalek has been a key figure in Ottawa’s success in that department.
The Senators led the league as of Friday with four short-handed goals, two of them from Michalek, who tied a team record when he struck twice with the disadvantage in a rout of the Lightning earlier this month.
The 24-year-old missed a chance for his league-leading third short-handed goal Thursday when he was stopped on a breakaway by Lightning goaltender Mike Smith.
“He is smart, he can read the ice and he can anticipate where the guy with the puck is going to pass and, (with) his speed, if he’s a little bit out of position, he can get back into position. When he does, he’s obviously a threat,” Clouston said. “He makes those proper reads, creates a turnover and instead of just icing the puck, he’s got those great first two or three strides – not many guys in the league have that acceleration. Whoever’s killing with him, they know now that when they get the puck, they don’t necessarily just have to ice it, they look for him.”
At a time when centre Jason Spezza, who sat out Thursday’s game with a suspected back problem and is doubtful for Saturday’s matinee against the Atlanta Thrashers, is still looking for his first goal and Jonathan Cheechoo, the other player acquired in the trade for Heatley, is likewise yet to find the back of the net, Michalek’s knack for creating offence while short-handed has been welcomed.
“We have really good players at killing penalties and we have really fast players there, too, so we can make (other teams) think about us, too, so they can’t cheat on the power play,” Michalek said.
The Senators were once a team feared for its own high-powered offence, particularly on the power play when Heatley, Spezza and Alfredsson at their best were a lethal combination.
This year, while the Senators’ power play sputters – 5-for-39 as of Friday, tied for 28th in the league at 12.8 per cent – the knack for preventing the other team from scoring with the man advantage is easing some of the pressure.
The Senators are paying attention to the little things, and it’s paying off.
“You’ve got to be willing to pay the price. You’ve got to be willing to block shots, to take a hit and to chip pucks out and battle,” said Clouston, who was hoping to learn later Friday just how long top shot-blocking defenceman Anton Volchenkov could be out for with an elbow injury sustained Wednesday night in a win over Florida.
Meanwhile, No. 1 goalie Pascal Leclaire is expected to be ready to play after sitting out with flu-like symptoms.
“We’ve been able to establish a game plan, make little adjustments depending on who we’re killing against, guys are willing to block shots and, obviously, goaltending is a key part of that,” Clouston said.