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Senators aim to start playoff push against champs

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Brian Elliott and the Senators aim to finish off the first half of their season with a victory tonight in Chicago against the defending Stanley Cup-champion Blackhawks. Both teams still have some work to do to secure a playoff position in the current campaign (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images).

The Ottawa Senators won't be alone in aiming to savour the taste of victory in the Windy City.

When the Senators and Blackhawks face off at the United Center in Chicago this evening (8:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200), it'll be a matchup between two hungry teams sitting in 12th place in their respective conferences. Neither of which, it should be noted, expected to find themselves facing an uphill climb to secure a post-season berth in early January.

"It was a tough first half," Senators forward Nick Foligno said with an eye toward tonight's game, which marks the halfway point of the team's schedule. "It wasn't the first half we expected, but we know we have a good chance here to turn it around and we believe in ourselves. It's just a matter of going out there and working hard and working together as a team. There's no doubt in our minds that we can do that."

Certainly, the same mindset has to be true in the dressing room of the defending Stanley Cup champions, who have dropped their last two at the United Center, including a 4-2 setback at the hands of the Dallas Stars on Wednesday. All of which has Senators head coach Cory Clouston expecting an inspired opponent tonight.

"They're the defending champions," Clouston said following the Senators' pre-game skate at the United Center earlier this afternoon. "They're coming off a loss, so we expect them to be that much more hungry. We need to match them. We need to come out with intensity, weather the storm to start, keep it simple, make sure that we make them go 200 feet before they get anywhere near our net and just be real solid."

While the teams' standing in their respective conferences is identical, their situations couldn't be more different. The Hawks (21-18-3) are a mere one point shy of a playoff position in the ultra-competitive West, in which a mere five points separate fourth and 13th place.

The Senators (16-19-5), meanwhile, are staring up at a 10-point gap between themselves and a post-season spot in the wake of the eighth-place Montreal Canadiens' 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night. And after five days off between game, they're anxious to dive back into the chase against the Blackhawks.

"We're looking forward to this game," said Foligno. "We had a long week of practice and I thought we had a real good week of practice. Guys are really motivated to play well in this game and we hit on some things we needed to fix. I think our spirits are up and we're ready for this game tonight."

Leclaire still not ready, Lehner recalled from Binghamton

With goaltender Pascal Leclaire (lower body) still not good to go, the Senators have recalled Robin Lehner from the American Hockey League's Binghamton Senators on an emergency basis.

Lehner, who just returned to the B-Sens after representing his native Sweden at the 2011 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Buffalo, will back up starter Brian Elliott tonight. He was en route to Chicago this afternoon and is expected to arrive at the United Center by game time.

"(Leclaire) didn't respond the way we were hoping he would after the morning said," said Clouston, who decided to hold Leclaire out after discussions with the goaltender and head athletic therapist Gerry Townend. "We felt it was in his best interests not to put him in a situation where, if we needed him tonight, he might re-aggravate (the injury) further. We need to make sure he's 100 per cent if and when he goes back into the net."

Clouston said Leclaire's status will be re-evaluated tomorrow in Ottawa.

"Right now, we're not sure of the extent of it," he said. "But we're hoping (his absence) won't be much longer than tomorrow or the next day. We won't know for sure until further re-evaluation when we get home."

Around the boards

After sitting out the previous two games as a healthy scratch, forward Jarkko Ruutu returns to the Senators lineup against the Blackhawks. Asked what he expects out of the feisty Finn tonight, Clouston said "he's just got to play his game. He's got to move his feet, he's got to be aggressive but disciplined. Just play his role, which is creating energy, not turning the puck over, make sure the pucks get in deep and go in on the forecheck" ... On the blue line, Brian Lee is being re-inserted into the lineup, with Matt Carkner sitting out ... The Senators return home to face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night at Scotiabank Place (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200) ... Also Saturday, tickets for all home games in February, March and April go on sale at 10 a.m.


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