Senators back in their happy place

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OTTAWA -- The first question asked of Paul MacLean at the press conference announcing him as the foundering Senators' fifth coach in the past four years was: How long have you had that mustache?

MacLean, with the weight on expectations (not to mention the weight of that unruly growth on his upper lip), replied: "1958."

The real answer is 1981. He was 23 and a rookie 36-goal scorer with the Winnipeg Jets when he first channeled his inner Lanny McDonald. MacLean was born in 1958, the source of his gag. While his country does not have the same Declaration of Independence thing as the United States, the coach, who was raised in Nova Scotia, knows all about life, liberty and the hirsute of happiness.

Now that the NHL calendar has flipped to the month in which prostate cancer takes its star turn as a health issue, MacLean's Senators should own Movember. They didn't own the previous month, but they did sort of rent it.

Ottawa closed October with a stunning six consecutive wins, an unanticipated bounty. If you had been offered a proposition wager at the start of the season about which would be more likely to occur, Ottawa winning six games in a row or six games total before (American) Thanksgiving, the money might have just about split.

Apparently this franchise has gone from folly to follicles.

There is a tendency to be too extravagant in praise and in criticism when the typing turns to the subject of coaches. But the Senators' dressing room mood is so palpably upbeat now it is a wonder that MacLean does not trip on the rose petals as he walks to the bench.

MacLean, as you know, has distinctive bristles. His unmourned predecessor, the imperious Cory Clouston, merely bristled. MacLean will wear out his welcome one day, as coaches invariably do, but right now he is a cross between Mike Babcock and the Easter Bunny. This has much to do with his hockey acumen and his nine-year association with Babcock, the man widely considered to be the NHL's best coach.

MacLean's exceedingly warm reception among the players in Ottawa is also a reaction (and perhaps overreaction) to the departed Clouston, who coached the Senators to their most recent playoff berth, but was the embodiment of chalk squealing on a blackboard. The Senators are the NHL's sixth youngest team, so there is still a lot of teaching to do. But with they are, at this writing, one game above .500 and the most significant ABC at the moment is Anybody But Clouston.

While no player chose to publicly assail their former bench boss, who now coaches Brandon in the Western Hockey League, the inferences were obvious. The Senators steered clear of making direct comparisons, but invariably mentioned the significance of MacLean's NHL career; he scored 324 goals in 719 games, exactly 719 more than Clouston played.

The Ottawa room is "happy," says defenseman Erik Karlsson. Skating gingerly around the topic, veteran defenseman Chris Phillips notes that when players make mistakes now, they generally are corrected and return to the ice without a 10-minute benching. For a team that started 1-5 and still is a victim of frequent brain cramps, Ottawa needs to make some obvious fixes, especially on its egregious penalty kill. (It has allowed goals on 26.6 percent of short-handed situations, about 10 percentage points worse than the median.) But as the Senators retool from a 13th place conference finish, MacLean has improved the work environment without having turned the dressing room into a country club.

"The penalty killing isn't very good because a lot of the people we have doing it (Zack Smith, Erik Condra and Kaspars Daugavins) are really learning how to do it in the NHL," MacLean explained in his office on Wednesday. "If you're killing off the first minute of the power play in the AHL, you've probably killed off the penalty because the second unit that comes out isn't as good as the first. Here in the NHL, you have to kill the whole two minutes because the second power-play unit could be better than the first and it's definitely better than the first unit in the American league. So all the things about penalty killing at this level, our guys are learning. And this is a hard league to learn in."

MacLean says the Senators played like a confused team at the start, no surprise given that he was trying to install a faster-paced system and instill an unquenchable worth ethic while playing against tough teams that included Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington and a smoking Colorado. Allowing seven goals twice at home in a stretch of three games, to the Avalanche and Flyers, certainly raised concerns if not the coach's level of ire.

But the Senators stiffened as the schedule softened, culminating in a 5-4 shootout win last Saturday at Madison Square Garden in which Ottawa forged a late three-goal comeback in a game otherwise defined by a pair of Rangers goals on a five-minute power play.

Jason Spezza scored on the power play in that buoyant win, his sixth goal of the season. He has 15 points in the first 13 games, a nod to the days when he centered Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley on the NHL's most dynamic line. Spezza, still impish at 28, averaged more than a point per game for three straight seasons but hasn't come close since 2007-08. He still shows his sweet hands and pass-first instincts. He has not, however, often displayed the gravitas of a leader, an aspect of Spezza's game that MacLean plans to cultivate.

"Jason is at a point in his career where I think he wants to be more than 'Jason Spezza,'" MacLean says, speaking in air quotes. "I think he wants to accept the leadership role and everything that goes with it. Not the I'm-going-to-have-the-Halloween-party-at-my-house-and-I'm-going-to-host-the-team-barbecue, the social director part of team leadership. We had a leadership crisis after giving up those two touchdowns. And it was really hard to be a leader on this team for those four or five days. That was our first test of leadership, not only mine but theirs, and it tested our ability to work together to solve the crisis. And Jason accepted that responsibility. He was a big part of changing the direction of the team."

Spezza says MacLean told him it is easy to lead a winning team. The measure of leadership --- Spezza is an alternate captain to Daniel Alfredsson, currently out with a concussion -- is best taken when the team is in the dumps. Says Spezza, "We had some good talks on the subject. He communicates with us well. There's no gray. And he runs real good, real hard and pretty short practices that have kept our intensity up during the games."

Maybe Spezza, signed through 2014-15, will be the cornerstone of a Senators revival along with Karlsson, the preternaturally gifted and rake-thin defenseman who can be a restricted free agent after the season. Karlsson is a human jailbreak, rivaling Washington's Mike Green (when healthy) as the blueline's most riveting high-wire act, one of those attack-minded defensemen who gives both teams a good chance to win.

"He can control a game from the back end really well, but I don't think he can control it totally," MacLean says. "As I told him, I'd like to play him 30 minutes a night, but we'll only play him 14 if he's playing 14 for us and 16 for them."

Karlsson, on the leaderboard last season for the NHL's green jacket -- he was a horrid minus-30 -- did some pre-scouting on MacLean. He called one of the denizens of Stockholm on the Detroit River, Red Wings forward Johan Franzen, who played for MacLean for six seasons. Franzen, according to Karlsson, had nary a bad word to say about Babcock's top assistant.

"I've played for five, six different coaches as a pro and the way he thinks we should play is the way I want to play," says Karlsson, 21, who has a goal and 12 assists. "He thinks we should have possession. Not to make stupid plays all the time, but to play with a lot of skill. He can get mad at me, but I know it's for a good cause. Guys know he was a good hockey player and that he knows what to do. He understands how players think and what they're going through."

MacLean has not made any NHL rookie head coaching gaffes yet -- he had been a head coach in the minors -- although Spezza says, "You could tell early on he was a little jumpy. As an assistant, he's used to talking to everybody. As a head guy, it's more about getting the lines out. He probably has to rely on (assistants Dave Cameron and Mark Reeds) to be a little more chatty. He's talking more between whistles now and not during the play."

Maybe MacLean represents the screeching end to the Ottawa coaching merry-go-round. Bryan Murray, now general manager, was the coach of the Senators' 2007 Stanley Cup finalist squad, but John Paddock, anointed as his successor when Murray took the GM job after the Cup run, didn't last all of 2007-08. Murray finished that season behind the bench, then swung and missed with Craig Hartsburg, who also was fired during the next campaign. Clouston, summoned from Ottawa's AHL affiliate, stepped in and stepped on toes, eventually leading to MacLean.

Other than the heady starts by Dallas and Edmonton, Ottawa's winning streak has been the biggest shock of the early season.

"I don't think 13 games are really an indicator of anything," MacLean says. "I think our coaching staff is going to have an influence on the way this team plays, what its work ethic is and how consistent it is. That's our job. And we're going to do our job. But players play. They do it all."