WILMINGTON, Mass. — The Bruins have won four of their first five meetings against the Senators this season. That's not much different than the results Boston has enjoyed against Ottawa in recent years, when the Bruins went 13-4-0 against the Sens in the last three seasons.
The rest of the NHL, however, has found facing the Senators a much tougher challenge this year. Ottawa is 41-29-10, good for 92 points. That's an 18-point improvement already over last year's output, with two games still to play. The first of those remaining contests is Thursday against the Bruins, and it's likely a preview of an opening-round playoff clash.
Yes, after finishing dead last in the Northeast Division a year ago, the Senators have locked up a playoff spot and appear destined to face the second-seeded Bruins in the Eastern Conference. And despite their recent success against Ottawa, the Bruins hold a healthy respect for the rejuvenated Senators.
"I think the biggest difference we see from last year is they've really committed to the structure and the system they have," said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who spent four seasons in Ottawa before signing with the Bruins in 2006. "They seem to really pay attention to the details. I'm sure their new coaching staff helped a lot. Obviously, a few players are having outstanding seasons for them. If you combine all those things, that's what makes them a playoff team."
The new man in charge is Paul MacLean, who came to Ottawa last summer after six seasons as an assistant in Detroit. The difference he's made is obvious to another Bruin with close ties to Ottawa.
"First off, they got a new coach," said Bruins center Chris Kelly, who spent his first 10 professional seasons in the Senators system before coming to the Bruins at the trade deadline last season. "I think he's done a great job over there bringing fun back to the rink. I know when I was there, that maybe was gone a little bit. And they have some talented players over there. There's no mistaking that. They're getting the ability to play and have fun and work hard. That's what they do. They show up to the rink every day ready to work."
Bruins coach Claude Julien knows Ottawa well. He grew up in nearby Orleans and brought the Cup back home to Ottawa last summer. He also knows plenty about the Senators and has an appreciation for the talent in their lineup and what they've accomplished this season in rebounding from last year's struggles.
"They were a team that you didn't know what to expect, but at the same time, are you surprised? Not really," Julien said. "You just look at the core players that they have. Up front, [Daniel] Alfredsson, [Jason] Spezza, [Milan] Michalek, guys that have been scoring a lot of goals for them. On the back end, [Erik] Karlsson leads the league in scoring [among defensemen] and there's [Sergei] Gonchar for power plays, and you know they have guys like [Chris] Phillips who's been there as a rock solid, defensive defenseman. And their goaltender's been good.
"So they've got that foundation, and then they've got some guys that come and play hard every night, the [Chris] Neils and those guys," Julien continued. "And give Paul MacLean a lot of credit. He's made that team a team. It's been a while since I've seen the Ottawa Senators look like a team that has a lot of chemistry. And you can tell. … I think Ottawa's established that, and it's really helped them get through this year that maybe a lot of people thought they'd struggle through."
Senators captain Alfredsson is the link to Ottawa's past success, including a run to the Cup Final in 2007, as well as a common thread among the Bruins' reasons to respect the Senators heading into their likely playoff showdown.
"The way he plays, he plays the game the right way," Kelly said of Alfredsson. "He plays all three zones. He's very gifted offensively, as you can tell stats-wise. But he's really good in his own end, too. He knows the game well. He reads the game well, and I think he handles himself extremely well, both on and off the ice."
Alfredsson is in his 16th season, all with Ottawa, and is showing no signs of slowing down with 27-32-59 totals in 73 games this year. But his contributions go beyond those offensive numbers.
"He's a very passionate guy," Chara said. "For all his career, he's been the heart and soul of that town, team and the whole franchise. There's been a lot of talk about him maybe retiring, but I'm sure he's enjoying the year and the way he's playing and the way the whole team is as well."
The Bruins have learned plenty about the Senators over the years, but they will still seek more lessons when they clash again Thursday in preparation of their potential playoff meeting.
"Every game you're learning something," Bruins forward Daniel Paille said. "We realize how skillful they can be if you give them time. Look at Alfredsson and the goals he's scored against us. They find different ways to score. So for us, we just can't let up against them."