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There are lots of issues to be sorted out before the regular season ends, particularly the status of centre Jason Spezza, Allen Panzeri reports
Allen Panzeri, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Monday, January 22, 2007


At this very moment, Ottawa Senators coach Bryan Murray could be sitting by the pool at a house in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, thinking about helping his wife, Geri, in the garden.

Instead, he's here in frozen Ottawa, plotting a course that will take his team through the final 32 games of the NHL regular season and into the playoffs.

That, of course, is exactly what everyone would expect any hard-working, conscientious NHL coach to do with his four days off during the All-Star Game break.

Fortunately, it's not an unpleasant task.

The Senators, 10-2-1 over the past month, went into the break playing as well as any team in the NHL. Now, the trick for Murray is to keep them heading forward on the same path.

Here's a look at some of the team's vital signs after 50 games and some of the things Murray will be thinking about for the final 32.

Special Teams

Compared to the first two months of the season, when they were embarrassingly bad, the Senators' power play and penalty killing have greatly improved.

Both rank 11th in the 30-team league, the power play at 17.9 per cent, penalty killing at 83.8 per cent.

That leaves plenty of room for improvement.

The Vancouver Canucks are the best at killing penalties, at 88.4 per cent, while the San Jose Sharks have been the best power play, at 25.8 per cent.

While the Senators haven't been able to score goals as easily as they did last season, they still rank third with an average of 3.40 goals per game. (The Buffalo Sabres lead with 3.63).

However, goals-against has to be whittled down. Ottawa is 10th at 2.76 per game. New Jersey leads with 2.21.

Goaltending

When the Senators returned from Boston on Saturday night, their charter flight was greeted by a small task force of Canada Border Service Agency staff.

While the equipment bags were examined as they were taken off the plane, the group of approximately 10 agents lined everyone up inside the terminal, used a drug-sniffing dog to examine bags and then moved the group into the lobby with the suggestion that each bag would be individually examined.

Only a bag belonging to Ray Emery was picked out by the agents (not by the dog), and he was taken into a separate room. About 15 minutes later, everyone was told they could go and Emery was left to repack his bag.

There were no problems with anyone's luggage, and Senators officials were told the scrutiny was routine. However, it seemed to be in response to a Transport Canada report, reported on in Saturday's Citizen, that raised concerns about largely non-existent security screening for charter and corporate flights.

Nonetheless, it's a good thing Emery is not ruffled easily.

He has become the team's No. 1 goaltender with a 21-11-1 record, four shutouts, a .920 save percentage and a 2.44 goals-against average.

He's in the process of handing general manager John Muckler a tough choice. The better Emery's numbers get, the more it's going to cost Muckler to re-sign Emery, while Martin Gerber (7-9-1, 3.15, .895) is left to wonder when he'll get back in net.

Returns of Spezza, Fisher

This will be Murray's major concern, and justifiably so.

How he arranges the pieces will determine what sort of scoring balance the Senators have and probably how far they will go in the playoffs.

In the new NHL, teams need a minimum of two scoring lines if they hope to make the playoffs, three if they want to be considered legitimate contenders.

With the addition of Mike Comrie and the imminent returns of injured centres Mike Fisher and Jason Spezza, the Senators not only have the components for three offensively-capable lines, but also enough left over for a fourth (probably Dean McAmmond, Christoph Schubert and Patrick Eaves) that will do more than give the others a breather.

How the arrangements shake out probably won't be apparent for a while.

Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Chris Kelly will certainly get a chance to continue their success.

At some point, though, it's a given that Heatley and Spezza will play together.

Another delicate task for Murray will be finding comfortable spots for Fisher and Antoine Vermette. Natural centres, they'll probably find themselves on the wing. How they adapt will be critical.

Someone will lose in this, probably Brian McGrattan and Denis Hamel, simply because there will be more bodies than roster spots. McGrattan will stick around as insurance, but Hamel could find himself with Binghamton of the American Hockey League.

Heatley's Quest for 50

He's playing beautifully, at both ends of the rink.

His 30 goals put him in a quintet at the top of charts, with Atlanta's Marian Hossa, Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St-Louis and Anaheim's Teemu Selanne.

The Senators need Heatley to stay hot, so the question Murray will likely ask when Spezza returns is not so much "Where do I put Jason Spezza?" as it will be "What's best for Dany Heatley?"

The Playoff Race

Murray won't talk about this, but it will be the backdrop to the Senators' final 32 games.

Neither the Montreal Canadiens (59 points) nor the Senators (58) can realistically hope to catch the first-place Buffalo Sabres (70).

FULL STORY
 
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