BY MURRAY PAM
Prior to the start of the season, Ottawa Senators coach Guy Boucher said it would take six weeks for his new team to grasp his system.
Almost one month in, Boucher is not only seeing positive results on the ice, he's learning more about the fabric of his team off it.
The 7-4-0 Senators hold the NHL's seventh highest winning percentage at .636. There are several key factors contributing to this mark.
1. Reducing shots against - The club ranks 14th, allowing an average of 29.7 shots per game. While this number may not appear impressive to some, the past three campaigns, the Senators have ranked 29th, 25th, and 30th with 32.8 shots given up.
2. Improved penalty kill - The Senators haven't surrendered a power play goal in six games, successfully killing off 13 consecutive penalties. Under the radar free agent Tom Pyatt has helped solidify the forward unit. Pyatt's familiarity with Boucher was a key contributor to his signing. He was part of coach's PK unit with the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs and Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Erik Karlsson - Boucher's edict of becoming a flourishing team includes tapering shift times, getting in the lanes, blocking shots. The Senators captain is leading by example. Karlsson is averaging 49 seconds of time on ice per shift, a far cry from his league-high 1:04 last season. His minutes are down 2:21 per game, but it hasn't affected his performance offensively. With 10 points in 11 games, Karlsson ranks among the NHL's blueline scoring leaders.
Defensively is where the eighth-year pro is excelling. Karlsson's 30 blocked shots is tops on the club, while the Senators 202 blocks are the league's third-most.
A knock against him in the past, which may have cost Karlsson Norris Trophy votes, was he didn't kill penalties with any regularity. With Boucher at the helm, the 26 year-old is averaging 2:22 of shorthanded duty.
Karlsson's buy-in has impressed Boucher. "Karl has been unbelievable from Day One with everything we do," Boucher said. "It's having a gigantic repercussion with the team."
4. Craig Anderson - The stats bear out, at least in the early-going, Anderson can once again be included in the upper echelon of NHL netminders. His 6-2-0 record, 2.21 goals against average, .930 save percentage and two shutouts attest to that.
But it's not the statistics that coaches, fans, opposing players and teammates are marvelling about, it's Anderson's ability to focus on the task at hand after his wife, Nicholle, was diagnosed with cancer.
After shutting out the Canucks last Monday, Anderson left the team to be with Nicholle only to return six days later and post another zero, a 37-save effort versus the Oilers.
Dion Phaneuf stated how Anderson's family situation has become a rallying point for his teammates.
"It's beyond words how he's playing under the circumstances with his wife. He's an inspiration to all of us. He's just incredible to be able to be doing what he is for our team, from what he's going through. His strength and courage has touched our room. We are playing for Andy and his wife, Nicholle."
There's no doubt the Senators are progressing defensively under Boucher. Offensively there is plenty of room for improvement. The power play is yet to hit its stride, four goals in 31 opportunities is not nearly good enough.
However, the players are forming an identity -- something that's been missing from recent Senators teams.