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'Rivalry week' has Senators' complete attention

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Call it rivalry week for the Ottawa Senators.

But despite the dire state of their playoff hopes, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs aren't exactly a pair of teams the Senators plan to look past in their own march toward the post-season. Especially given the intensity these matchups tend to generate between both the players and the teams' respective fan bases.

All of that passion figures to ignite throughout this week, with the Senators playing a home-and-home series with the Habs — on Wednesday at the Bell Centre in Montreal (7:30 p.m., TSN, Team 1200), then Friday at Scotiabank Place (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200) — before closing out the week on Saturday with a St. Patrick's Day matchup against the Leafs in Ottawa (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).

"They're dangerous teams," forward Nick Foligno said following Senators practice earlier today at Scotiabank Place. "They're playing desperate and desperate teams are hard to play against, so we have to be at our best. We know it's going to be tough, especially going into Montreal — that's always a tough game. Then coming back and playing Montreal and Toronto at home, that's always tough.

"But we're looking forward to the task and that's two divisional (rivals) we need to beat in order to continue to have success and be in the playoff hunt. I think we're up to that task."

As things now stand, the Senators might be the only one of that trio to see the post-season. Ottawa (36-25-9) currently stands seventh in the Eastern Conference, with a nine-point cushion over the ninth-place Winnipeg Jets with four weeks to go in the season.

The Leafs (30-31-8), meanwhile, are 12th in the East, eight points back of the Washington Capitals, who hold down the conference's eighth and final playoff spot. Montreal (27-32-10) is dead last in the East, it's playoff chances only mathematical in nature now.

All that being said, the Senators expect their most bitter rivals to make the chore anything but easy for them this week.

"It's fun games, there's no question," said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. "But the circumstances are a little bit different. It would have been more intense preparations or anticipation leading up to the games if both of them were in the hunt for the playoffs with us. But it will still be intense games.

"They (both) want to do everything they can to finish strong, and we want to see if we can gain ground on the other teams above us and keep the teams below us (in the standings) behind us."

Added Foligno: "Every player on this team knows they're big games and division rivals, so there's going to be no shortage of energy for any one of those games. We're just looking forward to getting going on Wednesday and having a real good start."

No timetable yet for Anderson's return

Senators goaltender Craig Anderson — who's been sidelined since Feb. 23 with a lacerated tendon in his right pinky finger — hit the ice before practice this morning in full gear and began taking shots. While that further heightened anticipation for Anderson's return to the lineup, head coach Paul MacLean said there is no timetable yet for the Ottawa starter to rejoin his teammates for full practice.

"There was some progress. He was stopping pucks," said MacLean. "He's trying to get comfortable with his glove (blocker) and his stick, and making sure there's a comfort level before he really starts to get into it."

The Senators, however, have managed to keep on chugging through Anderson's absence, thanks in great part to the solid play of Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner over the last seven games, during which Ottawa opponents managed 15 goals — a little over two per game.

"I was like everybody," MacLean said when asked about his level of concern in terms of how the team would handle Anderson's absence. "Uncertainty makes you a little bit cautious. As a coach, you like knowing, you don't like hoping. Right now, we know we're going to get good goaltending and that makes us all feel a little bit better."

Around the boards

While forward Jesse Winchester keeps progressing well in his recovery from a concussion that has sidelined him since Dec. 20, MacLean cautioned that his return to action isn't imminent. "He's longer than days (away)," said MacLean. "He still has lots of work to do, lots more practice time and stuff on the ice, before he gets into a game. But he's making progress and that's positive." ... Fewer than 50 tickets remain for the two games this weekend against the Canadiens and Leafs ... The Senators will go old style for their trip to Montreal, taking the train — along with a large contingent of Sens Army faithful — in a "heritage" journey tomorrow afternoon.

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