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Regaining identity aids Sens' return to winning ways

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Now the waiting game begins for the Ottawa Senators.

With their schedule empty now until Monday's holiday matinee matchup with the Islanders in Uniondale, N.Y. (1 p.m., Sportsnet East), the Senators will be highly interested observers over the weekend — especially for games involving teams just above and below them in the torrid Eastern Conference playoff race.

All of which placed added emphasis on the two games the Senators did play earlier this week in Florida. And they got the job done in a big way, recording a "sunshine sweep" of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, which pushed their current string of games in which they've recorded points to four (3-0-1).

"It was huge," forward Nick Foligno said of those wins. "Especially with us not playing this weekend and teams catching up to us in games (played). We wanted to make it as hard as possible for them to catch up to us in the standings. I think we've done a good job of that."

Added centre Jason Spezza: "We knew it was an important trip going into it because we’re not playing all weekend and we’ll be watching other teams get points ... For us to get the wins and get back on track and feeling good about our game was important, too."

Indeed, the Senators were a team that was struggling to find answers as they stumbled through a season-high seven-game winless streak. Ottawa began to emerge from that hole a week ago, when Chris Phillips' punctuated a memorable 1,000th career National Hockey League game by scoring twice — including the winner — in a slump-busting 4-3 triumph over the Nashville Predators.

The two road wins this week, in which the Senators outscored their two Florida foes by a combined 10-2 margin, showed this is a team that has regained the form that put it into playoff contention in the first place. Simply put, Spezza said, the confidence is back in Ottawa's game.

"When you’re losing games, it’s hard to get out of a rut because you feel like every mistake you make ends up in the back of your net," said Spezza. "But we didn’t feel like we had to change a whole lot. That was maybe why we got out of things in such a positive way and were able to stay with it for a few games, because we didn’t feel like we had to make drastic changes. It wasn’t like the start of the year, when it was intervention time and we were trying to find out what kind of team we were going to be.

"We know what type of team we are now. We just weren’t executing. At the start of the year, it was ‘what kind of team are we going to be, how are we going to win, how are we going to find a way to win games?’ Now, it’s ‘we just have to execute better’ and ‘how are we going to turn it around?’ Less change makes it easier to get out of a losing funk, but it’s never easy."

Said Foligno: "We just realized the right way we needed to play. Sometimes, over the course of a year — and it’s such a long year — you get away from things and bad habits start to creep into your game. It’s hard to reverse those, so we kind of re-evaluated ourselves and found what mistakes we were making on a (regular) basis and tried to fix those. I think we’ve done that for the most part."

What's also helped the cause greatly is that, after a long stretch of surrendering the game's opening goal, the Senators are back to playing with the lead more often than not. They've struck first in each of the last four games, which much more positive results.

"That’s the key," said captain Daniel Alfredsson, who recognizes each game is beginning to take on greater importance as the season moves closer to the finish line. "Get that first goal and force the other team to attack. We know we have to play smart on the road and we’ve done a really good job, especially the last 15 road games or so, of giving ourselves a chance to win every night. That’s what you want.

"Our special teams have been better and we’d like to continue that. Every game is going to be important and every game is going to have a big outcome by the end of the season. You don’t want to look back and say ‘we could have done better here or there.’ Just give it your all every game and then worry about the next one."

Around the boards

Spezza's hot pace of late — he's racked up 13 points (5-8) in Ottawa's last five games — his thrust him into contention for the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's top scorer. With 63 points, he currently sits fourth in the scoring race behind Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin (69), Philadelphia's Claude Giroux (67) and Tampa's Steven Stamkos (66). But you won't catch the Senators centre obsessing over any of it. "I'm trying to win every night and if we’re winning, I’m usually getting points," he said. "They all add up in the end and before you know it, you’re there. That’s how I’ve gotten there now and I’m not really going to change the approach" ... Even though he didn't make it through a full practice, forward Jesse Winchester skated today for only the second time since suffering a concussion against the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 20. "He skated today, which is positive," said Senators head coach Paul MacLean. "So he's making some progress. As long as he doesn't have any setbacks, we can anticipate him continuing to progress." 

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