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Carolina on Senators' mind

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
They are on the road again, if only for a few days this time.

But the Ottawa Senators leave behind the cozy confines of Scotiabank Place in a much better frame of mind than the last time they packed their bags for an out-of-town journey.

Fresh off a 5-2 home-ice loss at the hands of the New York Rangers, the Senators jetted south to Florida last week caught in the throes of a six-game winless streak – a skid that quickly became seven with a 4-3 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Funny, though, how back-to-back wins over the Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars can do wonders for a hockey team’s psyche.

“It was a pretty good trip, five out of (six) points,” veteran Senators defenceman Chris Phillips said Tuesday morning before the Senators headed to Raleigh, N.C., where they’ll face the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m., TSN, Team 1200).

“Hopefully, we can carry that over back on the road. We just have to simplify the game and have people working hard. When we do that, we seem to get the bounces.”

Despite the seven-game skid, the Senators never lost their grip on top spot in the Eastern Conference – at 18-7-1, they hold a four-point edge over the Hurricanes, the surging New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins. But as the Senators have discovered in the last month or so, there are no gimmes in the National Hockey League anymore.

 “It’s just nice to win some games and build some confidence,” said captain Daniel Alfredsson. “We’ve played a lot of close games in the last month … sometimes you come out on top, sometimes you don’t. As long as we give ourselves a chance to win every night, by doing all the little things and staying out of the (penalty) box as much as possible, I think we’ll win more than we lose.”

And given the tightness of play on most nights, the Senators surely have to like where they sit just past the quarter-pole in the 2007-08 season. At least Alfredsson thinks so.

“First in the conference, second in the league (behind the Detroit Red Wings) … it’s tough not to be happy,” he said. “But in pro sports, everybody looks at the stats and you can always find something you’re not happy with.

“It’s very competitive. (Monday), I watched Washington outplay New Jersey, which had won nine in a row (before Sunday's overtime loss to the New York Rangers). You wonder ‘how can that happen?’ But it’s just so close these days and if you get off to a bad start, it’s going to be a long night.”

Case in point: The Senators went four straight games without holding a lead, and lost every one of them. Then they finally got in front against Florida and Dallas and, just like that, their losing skid turned into a winning streak.

“You become more desperate when you haven’t won in a while,” said Alfredsson. “I don’t think we’ve changed anything but, against Florida and Dallas, we got the lead for the first time in quite awhile. It makes a big difference.”

Now along comes the Hurricanes, who lead the Eastern Conference in goals (98) and, you might recall, handed the Senators their only loss (5-3 on Oct. 11) during a sizzling 13-1-0 start. But, as head coach John Paddock points out, the ’Canes haven’t exactly been sailing along smoothly themselves in recent weeks.

“They’ve been a lot like us,” he said. “They’re pretty good one night and then they haven’t been as good (the next). Their bumps probably weren’t as long as ours, but they’ve probably been more severe. To lose 8-1 to Buffalo and then win 4-0 in New York … they’ve been up and down, too.”

Ray Emery, who backstopped the Senators to both road victories last week, will make his fourth straight start in goal Wednesday night. Simply put, Paddock wants to ride the winning hand, though he indicated Martin Gerber is likely to get one start this week – either Thursday in Pittsburgh or Saturday at Scotiabank Place against the Atlanta Thrashers.

“(Winning) is always the most important thing,” Paddock said in explaining his decision to stick with Emery. “We’re a win-driven operation. At times, (Emery) looks like he’s coming back to his form. Other times, he hasn’t. But we’re winning at the moment.”

Rink notes

Emery will debut a new white mask against the Hurricanes. It features two images of former heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali … Winger Patrick Eaves is progressing in his recovery from a separated shoulder. Paddock said he’s still on track to return within 4-6 weeks, meaning early January at the latest. Defenceman Anton Volchenkov (broken finger) “is at least three weeks away,” Paddock added.

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