OTTAWA - The Ottawa Senators were all smiles Wednesday morning as they posed for their annual team picture, and there were plenty of reasons to be grinning, having beaten one of the league's best teams a night earlier for their fourth straight victory.
The mood was not as cheerful a week earlier after the Senators had lost five games in a row. But what a difference seven days - and the return of Daniel Alfredsson - can make.
"Oh absolutely," Senators left-winger Nick Foligno said. "He's the heart and soul of this team and he's our captain for a reason. Just having him back shows how big he is on our team and what he can do on any given night. He's brought that leadership, that stability, and we've all fed off of him."
Alfredsson missed 11 games with a separated shoulder and, as has been the case in seasons past, the Senators struggled without him, losing six of those contests. Since his return, they're 3-0 and have outscored opponents 13-6.
Sure, they've had other players out at the same time, including No. 1 centre Jason Spezza (knee) and top-line left-winger Milan Michalek (concussion) - along with some shaky goaltending performances - but the biggest missing piece was the veteran right-winger.
Originally expected to miss about six weeks, he was back after just 3 ï¿½ weeks, returning in time to score a goal and set up two others in his first game back Saturday, a win at Montreal, followed by a hat trick Monday in the Senators' win in Boston.
Although he was held off the score sheet when the Senators beat the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday, the Senators are undoubtedly a different team when he's in the lineup.
"The guy just amazes me every time he gets on the ice," team owner Eugene Melnyk said. "The man's a machine."
Alfredsson, naturally, downplayed the impact his return has had.
"Guys have done a great job stepping in when we've had some injuries, that's encouraging for us," he said, adding that he didn't feel any pressure to hurry back to help stop the team's slide.
Well, almost no pressure.
"It was mostly from my dad: 'Get back before I go home,' " said Alfredsson, whose father, Hasse, has been visiting from Sweden as the Senators' dads accompanied the team on the road recently. "That was pretty much the only pressure that I had."
Alfredsson also gives credit to goaltenders Mike Brodeur and Brian Elliott for the recent turnaround.
Brodeur, the team's third-string netminder, was pressed into action last Thursday in New York when the team's No. 1 goalie, Pascal Leclaire, suffered a concussion and Elliott had the flu.
Brodeur shut out the Rangers, and was in goal again Saturday when Alfredsson came back.
Elliott, who had been struggling badly, picked up the next two contests and has been much better.
Foligno says it's all down to confidence, which is what Alfredsson helps bring.
"Guys are confident in the way they're playing and we're just playing within our system," Foligno said. "I think we kind of got away from that and we were trying to do too much when things weren't going our way and we found ourselves digging a bigger hole."
Ottawa's win streak sees the team moving up the Eastern Conference standings, where the Senators sat in fifth place before Wednesday night's games. The team is in good spirits, including the boss.
Not even the Senators' ticket sales - they've sold out just six of 28 home games and are averaging 17,893 per game, down from 19,081 last year - could dampen Melnyk's spirits.
He says the team is still feeling the effects of a sour economy and missing the playoffs last spring at the box office. But he said "it's just a question of time before people really start jumping on the bandwagon and I think it's starting now."
And there is hope that the winning trend that has started could continue as injured players return to action.
"We couldn't be happier," said Melnyk, who, during a radio interview Wednesday morning promised the Senators would make a deep playoff run. "We spanked the No. 1 team in the league last night very convincingly.
"On paper, at the beginning of the year, this was the elite team - one of the top five teams in the league - and now they're starting to show their stuff and I think they can only get better because of all the injured players coming back."