By John F. Molinaro
Ottawa Senators forward Martin Havlat had a point to prove at the beginning of the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The speedy left-winger has always been a dangerous goal-scorer in the regular season during his first four years in the NHL, only to fade into obscurity come playoff time.
This year has been different — very different.
Despite missing 58 games of the regular season with a shoulder injury, the Czech Republic sniper haseasily been the Senators mostdynamic attacker this post season.
In the first round of the playoffs, the red-hot Havlat tallied six goals and adding four assists in the Senators' 4-1 Eastern Conference series victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
Havlat added another goal and an assist in Friday's 7-6 loss to the Buffalo Sabres in Game 1 of the conference semifinals. With 12 points in six games, Havlat has already surpassed his previous best playoff season, in 2002-03 when he recorded 11 points in 18 games.
So what's been the difference? Havlat credits coach Bryan Murray for his awesome offensive output, explaining that Murray gives him more ice time than former coach Jacques Martin.
Sparked by Senators' new style
"This year I'm playing in different situations on the ice. I'm on the ice much more. That's what I want. I can help the team when I'm on the ice, not if I'm sitting on the bench," Havlat told CBC Sports Online.
"I think Bryan is a completely different coach, he has a different strategy from Jacques," said Havlat. "Jacques told me different things my first few years in the NHL, especially defensively. I'm much better in the defensive end and I'm happy about that.
"But Bryan is more offensive-minded for sure. He likes the skilled guys a lot, he changes lines differently from what we did with Jacques."
Murray's propensity for changing lines is another reason why Havlat is having a breakout post-season in 2006.
Murray reunited Havlat with former linemates Mike Fischer and Peter Schaefer and the move has paid off huge dividends for Ottawa — the trio combined for 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists) in the first round and accumulated another four points in Game 1 against Buffalo to push their total to 23 points.
There's no question that the Dany Heatley-Jason Spezza-Daniel Alfreddson line is the backbone of the Senators offence, but the Havlat-Fischer-Schaefer combination provide Ottawa with explosive secondary-scoring while taking pressure off the top line.
Havlat is quick to attribute the trio's success in the playoffs to his linemates.
"The biggest reason is both those guys are great skaters. They work really hard every shift. â¦[Fischer] and[Schaefer] are having career seasons, both of them score a lot of goals, and they've been among our best players over the entire year," Havlat explained.
"[Fischer] is a hard worker. He works hard every shift, he battles for the pucks and hits people, he's great defensively. [Schaefer]is great along the boards, maybe one of the best players in the league on the boards. It's pretty tough to get the puck off of him."
Havlat returned to action from the injury in the final two games of the regular season, and while he admitted that the shoulder was a little sore his first game back, he feels stronger than ever before right now.
"My goal was to be back for four games before the playoffs, but I ended up with two and I was happy with that. The first game back [in Toronto] I was soft timing-wise and I didn't have the jump in my legs, but the next game in New York was much better," said Havlat.
"I was just happy to be even playing this year again because the doctors told me it was going to be four to six months and it was right at the four-month mark when I came back. I was happy to be part of the team again, not just in the dressing room watching the guys play, I was happy to be on the ice with them."
"It was a tough year. Right now I'm just trying to have fun and help the team as much as I can," added Havlat.
Avoiding dumb penalties
Not only is he helping the Senators offensively, but Havlat has also avoided taking stupid penalties — he's only been called for a single two-minute minor in the playoffs — and has become a more disciplined player.
Havlat was suspended for five games early in the season when he kicked Boston defenceman Hal Gill with his skate. That ugly incident is ancient history, explained Havlat.
"I've been trying to put it behind me. I know that kicking doesn't belong in hockey â¦ It was just a reaction, it was at the beginning of the year and I'm not thinking about it at all," said Havlat.
The Hal Gill episode was not an isolated incident. Havlat received a two-game suspension for kicking Islanders defenceman Eric Cairns during the 2003-04 campaign. That same season, Havlat was hit with another two-game suspension for high-sticking Mark Recchi during a game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Not surprisingly, Havlat quickly earned a reputation as one of the league's dirtiest players — Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock warned that, "Someday, someone's going to make him eat his lunch" —a label he pays little mind to.
"Everybody can say whatever they want to say. It's just somebody else's opinion and I can't control that, that's their own thing," said Havlat.
Instead, Havlat is focused on helping the Senators live up to their potential and win the Stanley Cup after a sensational regular season, something the club has routinely failed to do in the past, much to the consternation of fans and critics.
"This year we have a different team, a different attitude and different guys in the dressing room. Nobody's thinking about [previous playoff failures] right now," Havlat said.