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Senators aiming to make a point

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Defenceman Anton Volchenkov returns to the lineup tonight when the Senators face off against the Carolina Hurricanes at Scotiabank Place (Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).

Matt Cullen hardly needed much time to ponder a scenario that would lend a helping hand to friends both new and old.

"Hopefully, we get the win, right?" Cullen said with a grin when presented with the thought that an overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes tonight at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200) would clinch a playoff berth for the Ottawa Senators while aiding his former teammates in their bid to stay in the post-season hunt.

Count on Cullen and the Senators (42-30-5) not being in the mood to do any favours for anybody but themselves when they hit the ice tonight against the 'Canes. They've reeled off five straight victories and want to keep the momentum rolling with the playoffs just around the corner, even it appears they're pretty much locked into the fifth-place position in the Eastern Conference standings.

"We want to finish out strong and get ready (for the playoffs)," Senators centre Mike Fisher said following the team's pre-season skate earlier today at Scotiabank Place. "We don't want to hold back at all. We want to keep playing hard and try to work on things in games and make sure we’re prepared the best way possible for the playoffs."

While clinching a playoff berth is all but a formality at this point, Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson admitted he's anxious to make it official tonight.

"It means a lot to get back to the playoffs," he said. "But our focus is still on playing the right way and playing hard every night going forward here. If we do that, I think clinching a playoff spot will come with it.

"We knew right from the beginning of the season that it was going to be a dogfight all the way to the end. Fortunately, we’ve been able to put ourselves in a good position here going into the last five games. It feels great and it’s going to be a lot of fun going back to the playoffs."

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, seemed all but left for dead after a terrible start in the first month of the season. It appeared Carolina was running up the flag on any playoff hopes when it started unloading a number of veterans around the National Hockey League trade deadline, including the Feb. 12 deal that shipped Cullen to the Senators.

"It means a lot to get back to the playoffs. But our focus is still on playing the right way and playing hard every night going forward here. If we do that, I think clinching a playoff spot will come with it ... Fortunately, we’ve been able to put ourselves in a good position here going into the last five games. It feels great and it’s going to be a lot of fun going back to the playoffs." - Daniel Alfredsson
But on the heels of posting the NHL's second-best record since January, the 'Canes have crept to within seven points of the eighth-place Canadiens in the East and won 2-1 in Montreal on Wednesday night. This surely isn't a team playing out the string, especially with No. 1 goaltender Cam Ward healthy and back in top form.

"(Ward) can win games on his own, but they've got a pretty good group in front of him," said Senators head coach Cory Clouston. "They've always played us well and we can't take these guys lightly. They're playing as well as anybody right now."

None of that is a surprise to Cullen, who helped fuel Carolina's run to the Stanley Cup in 2005-06 and was a member of their conference finalist team a year ago. And he admits he's cheering for his old team to find its way back into the post-season after all appeared lost.

"Certainly, that's a tribute to them," he said about the Hurricanes' revived hopes. "The way things started out, it would have been pretty easy to pack things in and call it a season. But they play hard, they play well and they've been very hot. I understand they're right in it ... I wouldn't count them out, that's for sure.

"Honest to God, I wish the best for them. I have nothing bad to say about that place. They treated me like gold there and I had some good years there and made some really good friends on that team. I certainly hope that they do well."

Just not tonight, that is.

Around the dial

The Senators have finalized a three-year entry level contract with defenceman Patrick Wiercioch, their second-round pick (42nd overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. He'll leave Denver University and join the Senators later this week. So, too, should blueliner Jared Cowen (first round, ninth overall, 2009 draft), whose Spokane Chiefs were eliminated from the Western Hockey League playoffs Wednesday night by a 5-4 overtime loss to the Portland Winter Hawks ... NCAA scoring star Bobby Butler makes his NHL debut tonight on a line with Jesse Winchester and Nick Foligno ... As expected, Brian Elliott gets his sxith straight start in goal tonight ... Defenceman Anton Volchenkov returns to the lineup against the Hurricanes ... Fewer than 1,750 tickets remain for Thursday's game, which has also been designated as Fan Appreciation Night.

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