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McElhinney aims to extend mastery over Lightning

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Senators goaltender Curtis McElhinney goes for his third straight victory against the Lightning when the teams face off tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla. (Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).
Curtis McElhinney will take his best shot at a goaltending hat trick of sorts tonight.

The Ottawa Senators goaltender has been tabbed as tonight's starter at the St. Pete Times Forum against the Tampa Bay Lightning (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200), an opponent McElhinney happens to have recorded wins against the last two times he faced them. Included is a 2-1 road victory over the Bolts on March 11 in his Sens debut.

While it would seem Senators head coach Cory Clouston is simply playing the law of averages in going with McElhinney — who was obtained on waivers from Tampa on Feb. 28 — he said a little more thinking went into the decision. Craig Anderson started the previous three games for Ottawa, facing 108 total shots.

"This will be our fourth game in six nights," Clouston said following a team meeting earlier today. "We’ve had a lot of travel. Andy’s played a lot of hockey and Curtis played well the last couple of times against these guys. He’s had their number and he deserves a game."

Clouston also acknowledged it might be McElhinney's last chance to start in a season that is now a mere six games from the finish line. The Senators are also done with the back-to-back game scenario the rest of the way.

"Andy’s had a couple of tough games as far as shots (faced) and a lot of work, so we thought it was a good time to give him a rest," said Clouston. "This might be the only time we can get Curtis in from here on in. He may get another start. We just thought it was a real good time to get him in because of how successful he’s been against these guys, the amount of games we’ve played and that we don’t have any more back-to-backs."

The Lightning can offically nail down an Eastern Conference playoff berth tonight with a win over the Senators, combined with a Carolina Hurricanes loss to the Washington Capitals. That's surely incentive for the home side.

"We’ll approach it as if we’re going to get their best, so we have to be at our best," said Clouston.

That being said, the Senators' recent record against them suggests any potential playoff clincher won't come easily for the Bolts. In their March 11 matchup in Tampa, the Senators built a 2-0 lead and hung on for the victory. Eight days later at Scotiabank Place, Ottawa wiped out a two-goal third-period deficit and prevailed 3-2 in overtime.

"We beat them in two different ways," said Senators centre Jason Spezza, who scored the overtime winner in their March 19 game. "There’s no real rhyme or reason as to why we’ve had success against them ... They’re a good team, they’re explosive and we don’t want to give them as many power play chances as they had here the last time. For us, it's just keep working hard and sticking to what we’re doing well."

Even though their own playoff hopes are no longer in stake, the Senators are pushing hard for a strong finish to the season. And their own performance matters most, Spezza said.

"We’re playing to play well and we’re having fun winning games," he said. "I wouldn’t say being a spoiler is what’s motivating us right now. Having a lot of new bodies and a lot of fresh faces and guys fighting for jobs, that’s created excitement around our room.  We just want to play well and put in a good showing every night."

Around the boards

Since Feb. 15, Senators penalty killers are operating at a 95.8 per cent efficiency rate, successfully navigating 72-of-75 shorthanded situations ... Ottawa forward Nick Foligno is one point shy of 100 for his National Hockey League career ... Since joining the Senators, McElhinney has posted a 3-2-0 record with a 2.14 goals-against average and .932 save percentage ... The Senators close out their road trip Thursday in Sunrise, Fla., against the Panthers (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200) before returning home to face the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night at Scotiabank Place (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).

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