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Defence never rests for Senators

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Call it a little of that old black magic if you will.

But while the Ottawa Senators are a perfect 4-0-0 in their new black third jerseys – and they'll wear them once again tonight at Scotiabank Place against the Florida Panthers (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet East, Team 1200) – the reasons for their recent turnaround run a little deeper than that.

The starting point? The same one head coach Craig Hartsburg has been harping on almost since the first day of training camp. Defence, it's been said, wins championships and the Senators currently rank third in the National Hockey League in team goals-against average (2.29), behind only the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Bruins (1.96) and Minnesota Wild (2.13).

Not coincidentally, the Senators have allowed just 12 goals in their last seven games, posting a 4-1-2 record in that span.  It's a far cry from the team that finished last season ranked 24th in that category.

"The second half last year, we weren't very good (defensively) at all," captain Daniel Alfredsson said after the Senators' pre-game skate earlier today. "I think it's still a work in progress but we're comfortable with where we are now. We can get better but we're playing smarter in our own end. We know where everybody should be.

"Good goaltending can make the defensive side of the game look good as well."

The Senators are surely getting that from Alex Auld (9-6-3), who makes his 11th straight start tonight. Auld ranks among the league leaders in goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.926) and when he's on, the Senators can count on banking points: Ottawa is 9-0-3 when Auld allows two goals or less in regulation.

Auld, however, knows it's far from a one-man show.

"It's a collective effort," he said. "Especially our pursuit in the offensive zone. The forecheck is a big part of our defensive play and the backcheck has been really strong. It allows the defence to stand up and do their jobs because everyone's coming back hard.

"We're rounding into form and our play is a long stronger defensively."

Added defenceman Chris Phillips: "It's been a big focus here in the last couple of weeks. We were up and down (earlier in the season), especially defensively, and having trouble scoring goals. That was a key for us, to really limit the other team's chances and start from there."

"I think it's still a work in progress but we're comfortable with where we are now. We can get better but we're playing smarter in our own end. We know where everybody should be." - Daniel Alfredsson
Tonight's matchup figures to be a tight one and perhaps a goaltender's duel between Auld and Craig Anderson, who has seized the No. 1 job for the Panthers and owns a 2.03 GAA and league-leading .943 save percentage.

"To me, they're a team that is one of the hardest-working teams in the league," said Hartsburg. "They've got some real good defencemen who can move the puck and skate.... We have to make sure we have pressure on those guys."

Tonight's game is the first of four the Senators will play this week. They're in Chicago on Wednesday and Washington on Friday before returning home to face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200). All of which adds to the importance of maintaining the level of the play they've shown recently.

"This group has played harder together, played more like a team and obviously some people's games have really picked up," said Hartsburg. "We have to continue, we have to move forward. We have a big week ahead of us here."

Around the boards

The teams split two earlier meetings this season, with the visitors winning each time. Anderson stopped 41 shots in the Panthers' 3-1 win at Scotiabank Place on Oct. 22 ... With a win tonight, the Senators (10-10-4) would leapfrog Florida (11-12-3) and move into 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings ... Fewer than 1,500 tickets remain for tonight's game, while the same number are available for Saturday's visit by the Lightning.

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