The difference in the Ottawa Senators from last season to this one was noticeable in two places Tuesday night.
One was on the ice at the Air Canada Centre, where the Senators stole a game they had no business winning. They were a tired team heading into their meeting with the Toronto Maple Leafs, having lost at home the night before to the Winnipeg Jets, which interrupted a hot streak that began after the Christmas break.
Somehow, though, the Senators hung in there, with goaltender Craig Anderson stepping forward as they were outshot 31-15 over the first 40 minutes. Then Kyle Turris scored early in the third to give the Senators a 3-2 win and terrific start on their six-game trip.
Which brings us to the second difference with the Senators this season – behind the bench. New head coach Paul MacLean is clearly someone the Senators want to play for, as noted by the rejuvenated Jason Spezza before the game.
Spezza was answering a question about how he was able to bounce back (he scored his 20th goal of the season in the second period) after two mediocre seasons of 57 points each that mirrored the decline of the Senators and he went out of his way to give much of the credit to MacLean.
"We've got a real good coach," Spezza said, and then added: MacLean "has put me in a good position to succeed."
MacLean, 53, has done that with everybody on the Senators roster in his first season as an NHL head coach after 10 years as an assistant with the Anaheim Ducks and Detroit Red Wings. With the Senators sitting in fifth place in the Eastern Conference after no one gave them much of a chance to finish within hailing distance of the playoffs, MacLean is now in the conversation with John Tortorella of the New York Rangers, Kevin Dineen of the Florida Panthers and Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues when it comes to candidates for NHL's coach-of-the-year award.
The key, according to Spezza, and MacLean himself when he was pressed into describing himself as a coach, is communication. It also doesn't hurt that two of MacLean's assistants, Dave Cameron and Mark Reeds, were successful junior head coaches, since the Senators restocked their lineup last summer with youngsters.
"I think from Day 1 in camp we knew how Mac was going to coach, what he wanted from us, what type of team we'd be," Spezza said. "We've really bought in to how he wants us to play and it's just a matter of maintaining that – a high-tempo game, try to be physical and try to involve everyone in the lineup."
Getting players to buy in is the biggest challenge of any NHL head coach. MacLean managed it quickly because he learned about the importance of communication through his many years as an NHL player and assistant coach. Senators insiders will also tell you the players were quick to buy MacLean's program because his predecessor, Cory Clouston, was a remote figure to the players who did not see the need to communicate much.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock predicted before the season that his former assistant would be a success in Ottawa because he understood the need to communicate with the players. Unlike junior hockey, you can't scare NHL players, Babcock said, "so you've got to be a better communicator. You have to be able to talk to people and build relationships."
MacLean said he is still learning on the job and he certainly doesn't consider himself a taskmaster. But he wants his players to understand just what they are supposed to do.
"I like to communicate," MacLean said, "and I like people to understand what my expectations are and not have any grey areas. I'm not sure I'm demanding but I certainly have expectations and I expect them to be met."
With a 9-2-1 record since Christmas under their belts, the Senators can say they understand and they are meeting – no, exceeding – expectations.