5 Questions: Paul MacLean's Senators look for real
Coach hopes team's depth will overcome loss of top centre Spezza
A reporter wonders if the real Paul MacLean or his lookalike, a man dubbed Paul MacClone, is on the other end of the phone.
"I use the imposter for most interviews, now that I have one," the Senators head coach said with a laugh from Ottawa.
At a recent Senators game, fan Mike Watson, whose close-cropped hair and bushy mustache bear a striking resemblance to MacLean's, sat in his seat behind the Ottawa bench sporting a tie, dress shirt and suit jacket in hopes of drawing the coach’s attention. MacLean didn’t bite, not during O Canada or between stops in play.
"If I’m turning around [during games] it’s usually to get a piece of gum or a board to write on," the 54-year-old bench boss said. "My wife [Sharon] showed me pictures [of Watson] afterwards. I could certainly see the resemblance."
It was just one of the many fun and happy times on the young season at Scotiabank Place, where the Senators have won four of their five home games en route to a 6-3-1 overall record entering Thursday’s game against Carolina.
Unfortunately, a sad moment or two has been tossed in, most recently news that back surgery could sideline top centre Jason Spezza for the balance of the lockout-shortened 48-game regular season.
MacLean, coming off a playoff appearance in his first season as head coach in Ottawa, spoke with CBCSports.ca about how the team moves forward without Spezza, the sparkling play of goalie Craig Anderson and the team’s changed approach to special teams.
1. What is the process of filling a void in your lineup when a top scorer like Spezza is sidelined long-term, and what players have shown a desire to step up their play?
MacLean: First, your disappointment is for the player. Jason’s a proud guy, a good player in the league and he wants to play. We talk to the players, either individually or in a group, and tell them we just need you to be you.
The next thing is you get excited about the opportunity for the next player. It ends up being a tremendous opportunity for multiple people to see if they can expand their role. We have some young players that believe they can play in the league and believe they can produce at a higher position on the team.
We’re trying to find a balance on our team. We feel the strength of our team is depth and we can play four lines. I thought [right-winger Jakob] Silfverberg was a very good player for us [in Tuesday’s 4-3 win over Buffalo] and I thought Mika [Zibanejad] played very well on the left wing. Down the middle, all four centres [Kyle Turris, Zack Smith, Peter Regin and Stephane Da Costa] all had good games.
2. Craig Anderson has been brilliant, topping all No. 1 NHL goalies in goals-against average (1.33) and save percentage (.957). To what do you attribute his strong start this season?
I think the work he did, strictly goaltender-specific, in Florida the last three weeks of the lockout seems to have made a difference in his skating ability around the net. He’s been able to move efficiently within the crease and his teammates have helped him with not allowing second and third opportunities [to score].
His athleticism, dedication and competitiveness has shown. He told me he could play all [48 games]. In the [lockout-shortened] 1994-95 season only one goalie played 41 [games of 48] and that was Patrick Roy in Montreal. When [Anderson’s] not ready to go we’ll consider putting other people in there, but he played  games [for Colorado in the 2009-10 season] and played  games for us last year.
3. The play of the Senators defence, led by youngster Erik Karlsson and veteran Chris Phillips, sometimes gets overlooked by Anderson’s heroics in net. Describe the play of that unit early this season.
The trade we made with Columbus [on July 1] to get Marc Methot [for forward Nick Foligno] has really worked out the way we thought it would. He’s been a very good partner with Karlsson and they’ve both played at least 25 minutes a game and a lot of times Erik is at 30 minutes and Marc’s at 28 minutes. We have a pair of defencemen we can have on the ice half the game and that’s made a big difference.
Erik’s ability to transport the puck obviously has been a big part of our offensive game and not playing in our end as much. Sergei Gonchar has been a solid veteran player that you can play with anybody. Gonchar and Phillips have been carrying a bit of a load of having one of those younger players [Andre Benoit, Mark Borowiecki or Patrick Wiercioch] playing with them. They’ve done yeoman’s work helping those guys find a way into the league.
Phillips is a solid National Hockey League defenceman, has been for a long time. He’s part of the glue of our team and our veteran leadership group along with Sergei Gonchar, Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Neil and Craig Anderson.
4. Through 10 games, your power play ranks fourth in the NHL, having converted 27.3 per cent of its chances, while the penalty kill is clicking at 90.9 per cent efficiency, good for third spot in the 30-team league. What is the reason(s) for such a dramatic improvement in those areas from last season?
Karlsson has been there for a lot of the power play [success]. I think it’s [also] familiarity with the players. They know where each other is going to be [on the ice]. On the penalty kill, I think a big reason [for our success] is we’ve used more people this year.
Last year we got caught, especially in the playoffs, with not using enough people. As a result, we weren’t able to put the pressure on teams that you need to [in those] situations [at] the NHL [level]. This year, we’ve made a conscious effort to use eight or 10 forwards to kill a penalty and try to use all six defencemen. Obviously, the goaltending of Anderson has helped.
5. On Feb. 1, your team dropped a 1-0 decision at Carolina, spoiling a 35-save performance by Anderson. What is the game plan for Thursday’s matchup?
We have a ton of respect for their team. We’re both skating teams and the game in Carolina went up and down the rink fast [so] we have to make sure we’re aware of who’s on the ice [with whom].
The [decisive] goal [by Eric Staal] was [the result of] us not recognizing who was on the ice at the time and making a play that was risky, and they took advantage and won the game.
I also thought we were a bit tentative and tight with some of our players trying to do too much [in the absence of Spezza] and trying to fill the void. We feel we can fill the void by being ourselves and sticking to the identity of our team. It’s a great learning game for us and we’re hoping we can turn the tables [Thursday].