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Huge test awaits Senators

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Their comfortable cushion atop the Eastern Conference standings has almost evaporated.

And a 45-minute team meeting on Monday morning, filled with video evidence of their declining play in recent weeks, offered the Ottawa Senators a further reminder that the time to reverse the tide is clearly at hand.

Especially with the Montreal Canadiens now a mere three points behind the conference and Northeast Division-leading Senators. And with the two teams set to square off twice this week – Tuesday night at the Bell Centre in Montreal (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200), then again Saturday at Scotiabank Place.

They don’t come much bigger than this.

“We’ve had a comfortable lead for a long time and (now) they’re right on our tail,” Senators centre Mike Fisher said before the team boarded the bus for Montreal on Monday afternoon. “I think that’s going to be a good thing for us, being pushed. We’ve got a lot of games coming up against Montreal and they’re going to be huge games.

“We know they’ve been playing well. But we’ve been able to raise our level against good teams, for the most part, this year and we’ve got to continue to do it if we’re going to stay in first.”

While the Senators have gone an Eastern Conference-worst 3-7-0 over the past 10 games – the surging Habs are 6-3-1 through the same stretch – it’s the way they’ve gotten there that has this group most perplexed.

“We watched some clips of the goals (during Monday’s meeting) we’ve been giving up lately and that’s exactly what they’ve been, goals that have been given up by us, a lot of them,” said defenceman Wade Redden. “We’ve just got to go out and perform and be better. Be committed to each other and be there for each other and play hard.

“It’s exactly what’s needed. The last stretch of games, you can just see the unity isn’t there and we’ve been on different pages at different times of the game.”

Somehow, the Senators will have to rebound in Montreal without captain Daniel Alfredsson (hip flexor) and Dany Heatley (separated shoulder). But centre Jason Spezza said the Sens’ current struggles run much deeper than just missing their two top goal-scorers.

“I think we were starting to slide a little bit with those guys (still) in the lineup,” he said. “We weren’t playing our best hockey, we were making a lot of mistakes and our record wasn’t great, either.

“It’s just a little eye-opener for us. The pack has closed on us now but fortunately, we’re still in first place and we’ve got a lot of games to separate ourselves again.”

Added Alfredsson: “We weren’t playing great with me in the lineup. You take Heatley out of the equation, it makes it a lot harder. But overall, we haven’t been playing as consistently as we would have liked.”

Head coach John Paddock believes a collective effort is needed to reverse matters.

“We’re still in first place with a group that’s missing significant players… we’re still a pretty good team here,” he said. “You have confidence when you do things right, individually and collectively. When you do things right, you don’t always win, but when you do things right over a long period of time, if you are a good enough team, you rise to the level of where you’re supposed to be.

“But we know there’s some things that need to be done better.”

No time like the present to make it happen, said Fisher.

“We’ve got some big games coming up against teams that are closing in on us,” he said. “So we’re going to see how good we are and we’ve got to raise our level of play.

“We know how good of a team we can be. It’s just a matter of putting things together. Whoever’s in or out, we’ve got to be competing a little harder, doing the little things and outworking teams and giving ourselves a chance to win. Right now, we’re just not doing them.”

Lineup notes

Paddock officially extended his "win and you stay in" goaltending rotation by naming Martin Gerber the starter for Tuesday's game in Montreal ... Alfredsson and Heatley haven’t yet targeted return dates, but both are getting closer. Paddock indicated his captain is “aiming for Thursday.” Heatley’s original prognosis was an absence of 4-6 weeks. He hits the four-week mark on Saturday and has been practising with the team regularly since late last week. “As soon as he’s given clearance, he’ll play for sure,” said Paddock … Forwards Patrick Eaves (neck, shoulder) and Cody Bass (ankle) also won’t play Tuesday.

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