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Da Costa gets his shot at pivotal position for Sens

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
With his good buddy Mika Zibanejad headed back to Sweden and Peter Regin shelved with a shoulder injury, Stephane Da Costa is getting big chance to fill the Sens' second-line centre role (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images).

Stephane Da Costa would rather that it didn't happen this way.

When the Ottawa Senators face off against the Florida Panthers tonight at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet Sens, Team 1200), the 22-year-old Frenchman will find himself centring the home side's second line between captain Daniel Alfredsson and Nick Foligno.

While Peter Regin's latest shoulder injury plays no small role — the Danish pivot is on the shelf for 6-8 weeks, head coach Paul MacLean revealed after the pre-game skate — the promotion for Da Costa has also come about because of the Senators' decision to return Mika Zibanejad to Djurgarden of the Swedish Elite League for the balance of the season.

Though they've been billed as competitors for the No. 2 centre spot almost since the start of training camp, Da Costa and Zibanejad became fast friends over the last two months. They sat in neighbouring stalls in the Senators dressing room and, as the media frenzy grew around Zibanejad in the last several days, perhaps nobody did more to keep the mood light for the 18-year-old Swede than his new buddy from Paris.

Away from the ice, they spent plenty of time together as well, living in the same hotel as several of the team's young rookies. Da Costa even picked up a bit of Swedish from Zibanejad, who skated with the Senators this morning but is headed home to Stockholm on Friday.

"I know this is an opportunity for me," Da Costa said wistfully when asked about the imminent departure of Zibanejad. "It's tough. I've been hanging around with him for about 2-1/2 months. It gives me a good chance to play, but I also lose a friend for the year."

That being said, there is no understating the importance of Da Costa's play — especially with Regin out of the picture for an extended period. While he might have other options later, MacLean wants to give the former Merrimack College star a shot for the time being.

"We're going to see what Stephane can do," said MacLean. "It's his ball to run with right now and we're going to play him in a top-six position. We expect him to rise to the occasion and see if he can accept that role and have success with it."

Part of that potential success involves improved defensive play, he added.

"We'd like (Da Costa) to make sure he continues to be diligent in both ends of the rink, not only with the puck but without the puck," said MacLean. "The big thing with Stephane has been his defensive play ... If you have vision with the puck, you should have vision without the puck. We're trying to get him to use his vision in the whole rink."

Meanwhile, the Senators' lineup will be bolstered tonight by the return of captain Daniel Alfredsson. He sat out Tuesday's 3-2 road win over the Carolina Hurricanes to rest a sore right hip flexor but, after two solid days of practice, has declared himself good to go tonight.

"I had a good practice yesterday and felt good this morning, so I'm looking forward to the game," he said.

Expect Alfredsson, whose 2010-11 campaign was cut short after 54 games by a back ailment that required off-season surgery, to keep monitoring his health closely as the season progresses.

"I've got to be smart," he said. "But at the same time, I want to play as much as I can. If I do get some minor tweaks here and there, I'm going to look after it."

Around the boards

Ottawa swept the four-game season series against the Panthers in 2010-11, but this is hardly the same group of Panthers that the Senators last saw on March 31. A massive overhaul over the summer left only a handful of returnees in the Florida lineup. "They've probably made more changes than we have, and have a new coach (Kevin Dineen) as well," said Alfredsson. "I watched them against Montreal (on Monday) for a period and a bit, and they're a hard-working team. They've got a goalie (Jacob Markstrom) who's played outstanding for them lately. We're just going to come out here ready to battle for 60 minutes and see what happens." ... Regin has elected not to have surgery on his shoulder and instead will rehab it ... Forward Bobby Butler and blueliner Brian Lee are the Ottawa scratches tonight ... At the end of the Panthers' pre-game skate, Dineen informed 19-year-old defenceman Erik Gudbranson, an Orleans native, that he's staying with the Panthers and won't be returned to the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. He'll see his first-ever game action at Scotiabank Place tonight.

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