Top Shelf: Cameron's Sens back on track

Philadelphia, PA ( - Perhaps the last straw for Paul MacLean in Ottawa came back in December when the now-fired Senators head coach said he was "scared to death every day of who we're playing."

It's amazing what a little positive reinforcement can do because under Dave Cameron, it's the opposition who is frightened to face the Sens.

Cameron served as an assistant during MacLean's tenure, and he's heeded the lessons learned by his predecessor's tumultuous tenure in Canada's capital.

MacLean won the Jack Adams Trophy after the lockout-shortened season of 2012-13, but that high point followed by a steady decline. His tendency to criticize and seemingly blame Ottawa's players openly in the media for the rough times only hastened his demise.

It's been three months since Cameron was handed the keys to the operation in early December, and after an inauspicious start to his reign, he finally has the Senators back playing with confidence.

Ottawa enters Tuesday's big home test against the Boston Bruins, holder of the Eastern Conference's last playoff spot, riding a tremendous hot stretch. The club has forced itself into the postseason race thanks to a 8-0-1 point streak and it only has lost once in regulation over the last 13 games, posting a 10-1-2 mark.

Whether or not Cameron leads the Sens to the playoffs, the new bench boss has at the very least managed to get his team to skate with passion again. Love for the game was something lacking in the latter days of MacLean's three-plus years as coach.

"There was an uneasiness in our room," Senators general manager Bryan Murray said at the time of MacLean's firing.

Credit Cameron for alleviating some of the tension, but Murray deserves his due as well. The GM could have played wait and see with his new coach and slap an interim tag on Cameron. Instead, Cameron was given the title of head coach in full, a vote of confidence that he was able to pay forward to his players.

The club's resurgence hasn't been all about Cameron. As is often the case, a bit of luck from an unforeseen series of events also has fueled the turnaround.

Right before Ottawa began to take off in the middle of February, things seemed bleak when injuries hit both of the team's top two goaltenders -- Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner. Forced to hand over the starting job to untested rookie Andrew Hammond and what followed was a pleasant surprise.

Although he's not exactly young, considering he turned 27 on Feb. 27, Hammond had only one NHL appearance and zero starts before getting his big shot. The former Bowling Green State netminder helped lift the Senators out of the doldrums, going 7-0-1 with a sparkling 1.43 goals against average and .954 save percentage.

Hammond became only the second goalie in the last 76 years to allow two goals or less in each of his first eight NHL starts, joining Los Angeles Kings backup Martin Jones, who pulled off the same feat last season.

But, in perhaps the first controversial decision of Cameron's tenure, the head coach has decided to turn back to Anderson as the No. 1 option in net now that the veteran is recovered from the hand injury that knocked him out of action at the end of January.

Anderson returned to the lineup Sunday and made 42 saves in a wild 5-4 shootout win over visiting Calgary, which rallied from a four-goal deficit to steal a point. After surviving a shooting gallery against the Flames, Cameron has decided to go with Anderson again on Tuesday, when Ottawa tries to take a chunk out of Boston's lead for the last wild card spot in the East.

It's difficult to gauge how Cameron's players feel about their coach putting Hammond on the shelf in the midst of his hot streak. Like most professional athletes, hockey players usually don't like any changes when they're in a groove, but this could be different.

Cameron said Anderson "gives us the best chance to win," which doesn't really mesh with what has happened in Ottawa over the last several weeks. However, if MacLean's instinct was to blame his best players for the club's failings, Cameron is being consistent by letting Anderson get a chance to win back the starting role.

The fact nobody really expected Ottawa to make the playoffs when Cameron took over also is a factor here. Of course, a surprise trip to the postseason would be great, but Cameron's main job has already exceeded expectations by getting a group that had been battered by criticism from within to trust in themselves again.

There is little doubt Ottawa's return to relevancy has been exciting for the team and its fan base. Playoffs or not, Cameron at least has set his team up to succeed in 2015-16, and that's more than enough for now.