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Fight starts tonight for Sens

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
It's the last instalment of the Battle of Ontario they'll face for awhile.

But the Ottawa Senators will have a much bigger fight on their minds when they hit the ice at Air Canada Centre on Thursday night to face the Toronto Maple Leafs (7:30 p.m., Sens TV, Team 1200) in the eighth and final meeting of the season between the provincial rivals.

The Senators, with 92 points and a sixth-place standing in the Eastern Conference, still haven't locked up a post-season berth. A win tonight would go a long way toward getting them there, though it's still quite likely it will all come down to the Senators' home and season finale Friday night at Scotiabank Place against the Boston Bruins (7:30 p.m., TSN, Team 1200).

In fact, the Senators need only a regulation-time win against the Bruins tomorrow to lock up a post-season berth. But the margin for error gets a little wider if Ottawa can find a way to end its current four-game losing streak to the Leafs tonight.

"We're in a tough spot," Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson admitted after the team's pre-game workout at the ACC earlier today. "After the good start we had, we've kind of been searching throughout the season. It's been very up and down and it's all come down to the last two games here, and we'll see how we fare."

While the Leafs' playoff hopes were extinguished last week, no doubt they'd like nothing more than to help take their bitter rivals down with them.

"I'm sure they want to stick it to us, so it should be interesting," said Senators forward Antoine Vermette.

Head coach/general manager Bryan Murray is also wary of teams such as the Leafs, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, all of whom have the chance to play spoiler over the final few days of the season.

"We know that when you get to the latter part of the year, players are playing a lot for themselves and their future," he said. "They're trying to make an impression on management and when the pressure's off, for a lot of people it's a lot easier to just go out and play the game and play hard and give yourself a chance to win as a team. It looks like that's what (the Leafs) are doing."

Before the Senators can think about wins, though, they've got to erase the zeroes they've hung on the scoreboard the last two games. In Murray's mind, the pressure there is being felt the most by his top offensive guns.

"You get in a tailspin of sports and it gets hard for the skill players in particular to do the things they're probably used to doing, and that's scoring goals and making creative plays," he said. "But the good thing about it is we've got two games to play and we decide our own fate. We just have to find a way to play better than we have the last couple of games and score some goals."

The Senators have been playoff participants for 10 straight seasons, a run that's in jeopardy at the moment. But it's a string of success Alfredsson said the team doesn't want to see end this week.

"Not getting into the playoffs is a missed opportunity at winning the (Stanley) Cup, and that's the toughest thing to swallow," he said. "It's a privilege to be in the Stanley Cup playoffs and it takes a lot of hard work and commitment to get there. We're going to do everything we can to get in and once we do, I think every (negative thing) is kind of lost a little bit and you're playing for something to win again.

"It's almost like we've got everything to lose (now) and hopefully we can do well."

Scoreboard watching

The Senators can clinch a playoff berth tonight, but it'll take some help. If the Senators win or gain an overtime/shootout loss point, they're in if the Washington Capitals lose at home to the Tampa Bay Lightning. If the Caps only manage one point, it also opens the door for the Sens to secure their spot with a victory.

Around the boards

Murray said winger Cory Stillman (leg bruise), who's missed the last two games, will be a "game-time decision" against the Leafs ... No other lineup changes were announced after practice ... Martin Gerber (29-17-4) makes his 16th straight start in goal.

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