MONTREAL – The injuries endured this season by the Ottawa Senators might have done in any other team.
But the Senators say that sticking to their system and making it work is what got them into the NHL playoffs for a second year in a row.
The Senators lost their first-line centre Jason Spezza only five games into the lockout-shortened season, then lost their top defenceman and power play point man Erik Karlsson only 14 games in.
Then their No. 1 goalie Craig Anderson was lost for 20 games, while winger Milan Michalek also missed major stretches.
And second year rearguard Jared Cowan got hurt during the lockout and missed the first 41 of the 48-game campaign.
The Senators hunkered down, won a lot of low-scoring games, and made it in as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
And now they have everyone back except Spezza for their first round playoff series against the second-place Montreal Canadiens.
Captain Daniel Alfredsson said the key was avoiding the temptation to change their game to make up for the missing pieces.
“We really didn’t change much as far as strategy goes,” Alfredsson said Thursday as the team prepared for the opening game of their best-of-seven series with the Canadiens. “We still wanted to be a forechecking team that skated a lot.
“Credit goes to the guys who stepped up and played in place of the guys who were injured and filled those roles really good. We play the same style, so whenever a guy comes in they know what to expect.”
The immediate effect of losing top offensive players like Spezza and Karlsson was that they didn’t score a lot of goals. Ottawa ranked 27th in the 30-team league with an average of 2.33 goals per game.
They made up for that with tight defence. They conceded only 2.08 goals per game, second only to the Chicago Blackhawks at 2.02. And they had the NHL’s best penalty killing with an 88.0 per cent success rate.
“We kept our game simple,” said Anderson, who returned April 7 after missing 20 games with an ankle injury. “Everyone knew their role.
“We didn’t stray from that. Guys found what worked for them and did it. No one tried to do anybody else’s job. No one tried to do too much. We did a good job all year of finding ways to win regardless of who was in the lineup and who wasn’t.”
Every team talks about sticking to their system, but few teams do it as patiently and with as much consistency as coach Paul MacLean’s Senators.
“Structure is a big part of every team in the league,” MacLean said. “What it gives you is a place to go to when you’re under the gun.
“A big part of it is being able to stick to the structure of your game when things aren’t going your way. That’s how you get it back.”
The six-foot-five Cowan suffered a hip injury that required surgery while playing in the American Hockey League during the lockout and was thought to be done for the season. But the 22-year-old returned April 16 and played the final seven games of the regular season.
Karlsson, last season’s Norris Trophy winner, was also thought to be gone until next season when he suffered a deep cut to an Achilles tendon from Matt Cooke’s skate against Pittsburgh on Feb. 13. But the slick rearguard was back for the final three games.
Spezza, who did not make the trip to Montreal, is still rehabbing from back surgery and it is not known if he will return in the playoffs.
Having them back won’t change the Senators into band of flashy goal-scorers, but it should help a lot in getting the goals they need.
“Our mentality doesn’t change,” MacLean said. “We still had the same structure, the same work ethic and expectations. They’re the same whoever is in the lineup.
“What the (returning) injured players give us is a better quality of players. And that improves the quality of the team.”
MacLean looks to have tweaked his defence pairings going into the series, pairing six-foot-five Cowan with six-foot-three Eric Gryba. They could be a tough duo for Montreal’s mainly smaller forwards to deal with.
Asked what prompted the move, MacLean only smiled and said: “I have to look up at them. I like that.”