WITH A zeal that matches his fresh-scrubbed Richie Cunningham features—honestly, do the Senators convene team meetings with the Fonz at Arnold's Drive-In?—Cory Clouston, Ottawa's new coach, has breathed life into a team of skating zombies, leading it to a 5-3-2 record at week's end. Is this a genuine revival for a team that was 17-24-7 before Clouston replaced Craig Hartsburg, or is this just a dead-cat bounce?
There is often a surge after the in-season firing of an NHL coach. Since the 2004--05 lockout, 11 of the 16 coaches hired in midseason to lead generally foundering teams have had winning (or in two cases .500) records over their first 10 games. Senators G.M. Bryan Murray ascribes the bump to players' guilt over the old coach's firing. The impact, however, is often short-lived. Only five of the 13 teams that underwent midyear coaching changes in the first three postlockout seasons made the playoffs, with none going past the second round.
Given Ottawa's stylistic sea change, says Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson, "I think there's something more here. Craig worked on our defensive game. Now Cory's come in, used that base and added a more aggressive style."
Clouston, who was promoted from the team's AHL affiliate in Binghamton, has turned Ottawa loose. Although Hartsburg promised puck pressure when he took over before this season, his players often retreated into a 1-2-2 carapace. The Senators still use a variation of that forechecking scheme, but the reads are so different that they often send two forwards deep into the offensive zone. Clouston also encourages his defensemen to pinch. The result: sprightly hockey and proof that players prefer playing with the puck to defending. "We're changing the culture," says Clouston, 39. "We're trying to play to the strength of this team. Up-tempo. Forcing turnovers."
The style has naturally suited offensive stars such as Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley, and also aided secondary scorer Antoine Vermette, who after producing 18 points in 48 games under Hartsburg had eight in 10 games with Clouston.
Ottawa, regarded as a playoff team at the start of the season, was 15 points out of a berth at week's end, but with a run of home games in March, the Senators hope to turn into this year's Capitals. Washington promoted an AHL coach—Bruce Boudreau—in November 2007, and he, like Clouston, overhauled a stuffy system. Boudreau's predecessor, Glen Hanlon, "wanted his guys to be responsible defensively," Murray says. "Then Boudreau comes in and tells them to hound the puck and score. Not a bad idea." Washington closed 17-6-3 to make the postseason.
The Senators don't have the Capitals' offensive depth, but the boost from the coaching change has been visceral. "Our bench had gotten pretty quiet," Alfredsson says. "Cory's brought some energy there."
Yes, happy days.
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BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS (CLOUSTON)
HAND OUT Clouston's style has helped Senators forwards like Vermette (inset) score.
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES (VERMETTE)
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