Fun and games: Senators coach Paul MacLean takes light approach with young team

The day before the Ottawa Senators opened their second-round playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, coach Paul MacLean gathered the players after practice. We want you to play hard, he told them. We want you to play the system, he said. But ultimately, he reminded them, let’s have some fun. The Pens had all the pressure as the top seed in the East. The Sens were just a pesky seventh seed. Have fun, he concluded, and make things happen.

“He uses the word ‘fun’ all the time,” said Senators rookie Cory Conacher, “and that’s important.”

Havin’ fun yet?

Thanks to a dramatic 2-1 victory in Game 3 – a shorthanded goal in the final minute of regulation, the winner in double-overtime – the Senators cut their deficit to 2-1. If they come back and win this series, it will add to an incredible story. If they don’t, it will still have been an incredible story, speaking well of coach, boding well for the team.

The Senators were supposed to be one of the worst teams in the NHL last season, if not the worst. MacLean, in his first season as an NHL head coach, led them to the playoffs, anyway, and was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award.

The Senators were supposed to plummet in the standings this season because of injuries to many of their best players. Jason Spezza missed 43 games, Jared Cowen 41, Erik Karlsson 31, Milan Michalek 25, Craig Anderson 24. Fourteen rookies played at least once. Fourteen. MacLean led them to the playoffs, anyway, and is the favorite to win the Jack Adams this time. The Sens upset the second-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the first round.

[Watch: Senators lean on goalie Craig Anderson against mighty Pens]

“I think with a young group, particularly, you can’t be putting a lot of pressure on them at this time of year, whether it be Round 1 or Round 2 or if you’re fighting for a playoff spot,” said Senators general manager Bryan Murray. “Do the fundamental things, but enjoy the game, because it is a great experience for them and it’s a growth experience. That’s how we’re approaching it.

“We know that there are teams that have more proven veteran players. But we’ve got a lot of young guys that over the next couple years are going to grow and be good players and very good players in the league, and he’s helping that by the approach he takes.”

* * * * *

MacLean has become a caricature because of his glasses, bushy fisherman’s mustache and sense of humor. He has a doppelganger, an Ottawa auto-parts sales manager named Mike Watson, who has sat behind the bench and drawn laughs on TV. After Habs forward Brandon Prust called MacLean a “bug-eyed fat walrus” in the first round, the response was classic.

“Bug-eyed?” MacLean told the media. “I’ve never been called that before. That’s a new one. Walrus? Ah, that’s too easy. But I’ll tell you one thing: I’m not fat. I might be husky, but I’m not fat. I took offense to that.”

Fans showed up to Scotiabank Place wearing glasses and mustaches and T-shirts with MacLean’s face and the line: “I Am Walrus.” Goo, goo, g’joob. In Ottawa, you’d think the guy was the fifth Beatle.

What you see is what you get with MacLean. Just know that you don’t see everything.

Prust made his comment amid a heated, hard-fought series. Reporters were circling. The players were on edge.

“Guys were kind of like, ‘I wonder how he’s going to take that. I wonder what his reaction’s going to be,’ ” said Senators winger Matt Kassian.

Well, before MacLean met with the media and responded to Prust in public, he met with a group of players to go over video and tested out his response on them first.

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“He just kind of slipped it right in the middle of everything,” Kassian said. “It was pretty funny. He has a pretty good feel for the room, when it’s appropriate to slide something like that in and to keep it light. … Especially a situation like that, say your coach reacted very, very over the top or angry or something, it might feed into the room a little bit. But in that situation, he just kind of flipped it.”

And he kept flipping it and flipping it and flipping it. The Habs didn’t like it when he called their players by their numbers, so he started calling his own players by their numbers, too. He drove Habs coach Michel Therrien crazy in games and between games, fed the Montreal media beast and kept the heat off his players.

“That’s kind of how we felt so comfortable during the first series,” Conacher said. “We didn’t have the media all over us. As you see in Montreal, some of the comments that Prust made, they wanted to interview him more. Different events happened throughout the series, but none of it came back to us. He knows what he’s doing.”

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Make no mistake: MacLean is tough. The man put up 324 goals and 673 points in 719 games as an NHL player; he also put up 968 penalty minutes. He paid his dues for many years as a minor-league coach and NHL assistant, and Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who had him on his staff in Anaheim and Detroit, winning a Stanley Cup and going to two other Cup finals, said he was “sometimes perceived as gruff.”

MacLean knows systems, pays attention to detail and demands execution. The Senators were the top defensive team in the East in the regular season (2.08 goals against per game), and goaltending wasn’t the only reason, as good as it was no matter who was in net. MacLean coordinated with the Sens’ minor-league coaches so call-ups would be ready to fit in, and he made sure ice time was earned.

“I think, a lot like what we try to do here, they try to play the players that play the hardest and play the best, and they try to make their people accountable,” Babcock said.

Yet MacLean does not have the overbearing arrogance of some coaches. His humor balances his sternness, so he puts people at ease while earning their respect. Instead of inspiring fear, he reduces fear to inspire. He tolerates mistakes as teachable moments, and he has a gambler’s gut. Some of it is his personality, some of it is calculated based on the team and situation, and all of it has had a direct impact on the Senators’ success.

Though known behind the scenes as the “Mumbler” in Detroit for his style of speech, he communicates well with his players – speaking and listening.

“He gets emotional occasionally, but mainly he talks to the players like they’re important people and he includes them in many things that he says and does,” Murray said. “He’s very approachable for them. His approach in the room is somewhat technical, teaching, but also very inclusive of the whole group.”

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After taking over for the caustic Cory Clouston last season, one of the first things MacLean did was call Spezza. He asked about the team and told him he needed to set an example for the youngsters. As he set up the power play, MacLean asked veteran Sergei Gonchar for input. No matter what happens in a game, he generally won’t come into the room afterward and pick it apart. He will wait until the next day.

“He’s been part of the Detroit organization for quite a while there with the winning atmosphere and attitude, which comes in handy when the pressure’s on,” said Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson. “I think he’s good at realizing we get tense and [says] to kind of just play, don’t think too much. And even when he wants us to get going, he can do that in a good way where we feel, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’ It’s not just screaming and yelling. It’s in a productive way.”

* * * * *

Conacher started the season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, then was traded to Ottawa. He never mentioned his old coach, the fiery Guy Boucher, but clearly MacLean is different than what he had before.

“He doesn’t like to yell to get his point across, he just repeats, repeats,” Conacher said. “You don’t have that coach stressing, on your back, feeling like he’s in your ear. He’s not like that. He doesn’t want to be like that. …

“It makes it a lot easier, especially for young guys, to play under a coach like him, just because you don’t feel that pressure to make the right play. Obviously you want to make the right play, but you don’t make that wrong play as much because you feel like you’re a little more confident out there and a little more confident on the ice.”

Conacher had been scratched from Game 2 against Montreal. He had made the wrong play in Game 4, committing a turnover that led to the Canadiens’ second goal, and had been benched for a stretch. He had no points in the playoffs, and facing a 2-1 deficit in the final moments of regulation, the Senators were pulling their goalie.

MacLean called Conacher’s name, anyway, and told him to go to the net.

Murray was puzzled in the press box. Conacher? Why Conacher? He’s only 5-foot-8, 180 pounds. Why not a 6-foot-1, 212-pound veteran instead?

“I’m thinking up in the box, ‘Chris Neil’s a pretty big body to put out there in comparison,’ ” Murray said. “But obviously he had a feel.”

MacLean felt Conacher had the speed they needed. MacLean felt Conacher had some redeeming to do.

“It got me so excited,” Conacher said. “I wanted to get that goal so bad.”

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Sure enough, Conacher got to the net, and the puck bounced to him, and he scored the tying goal with 23 seconds to go.

“He gave me a little smile and said, ‘You owed us that one,’ ” Conacher said. “That’s how it was. I don’t think I’ve had a coach that’s ever done that – if I’ve had a bad game, to put me out there like that. That obviously was, I guess, the right move.”

The Senators won in overtime, 3-2. Conacher scored twice in Game 5 as the Sens won, 6-1, and eliminated the Canadiens. Now that Conacher has gone three games without a point in this series, he likely will be replaced Wednesday night – but by another rookie, Mark Stone, who has all of five games of NHL experience.

“He knows how to win,” said Conacher before the series. “He finds ways to win. During games, you see some coaches panic if they’re down 4-0 or 4-1. Things can change throughout the game. He’s a guy that knows what to do in all circumstances, and that’s why we’ve been so successful this year, especially with the injuries we’ve had. He knows who to play with who and when to play them. You obviously have so much respect for a coach like that, and I have a lot of respect. He’s a very loyal guy. He tells you how it is, and that’s basically how this team works.”

Sounds like fun.

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