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Senators eyeing a mighty leap with victory tonight

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Colin Greening and the Senators are taking dead aim at claiming top spot in the Northeast Division and can leapfrog the Boston Bruins with a home win over the Montreal Canadiens this evening (Getty Images).

The Ottawa Senators are looking out for No. 1.

With a victory over the Montreal Canadiens tonight at Scotiabank Place (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200), the Senators can do something many would have considered unthinkable at the season's outset — leapfrog the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins to seize top spot in the Northeast Division with just three weeks to go in the 2011-12 campaign.

Granted, the Bruins (40-27-3) will still own two games in hand over the Senators (36-25-10) after tonight's action is complete, along with the potential tiebreaker (wins in regulation/overtime) should the teams finish the season dead even in the points column. But still, the fact these two teams are running neck and neck so close to the finish line says plenty about the strides the Senators have made in what was supposedly a rebuilding season in Ottawa.

"We've been telling ourselves for the longest time that we want to get to the top of the division," Senators forward Colin Greening said following the team's pre-game skate earlier today. "We're in a spot now to take advantage of it. I think it puts more pressure (on us) for the game tonight, but that's fun for us. We realize it's going to be a big weekend to begin with, so it's fun to add a little more to it."

Added centre Zack Smith: "It would be huge. It's something that's in the back of your mind, but you just worry about winning games, getting into position and playing good hockey going into the playoffs ... It's always an advantage to have home ice in the playoffs (and) it's something we're thinking about."

Indeed, one of this team's strengths — and keys in its rise to playoff contention — has been the ability to narrow the focus down to the immediate task at hand. So while captain Daniel Alfredsson sees the opportunity being presented to his team tonight, he's also very much aware the Senators have recorded only one win in four tries against the Habs to date this season.

"We've still got to go out and focus on getting the job done (tonight), and not look too far ahead here," said Alfredsson. "We want to focus on our game and how can we improve, and just stay in the present. I know it sounds really boring, but that's what we have to do. We know the byproduct of (doing that) is that we play pretty good. And if we play pretty good, we usually win and if we win, we're in first place.

"We'll just take it in the process, and don't think about first place first. It's how do we get there?"

In other words, the Senators can only control what happens in their own games. What happens to the Bruins — and anyone else in the playoff picture — is out of their hands.

"We have to continue to play good hockey and pick up wins, and not focus on what's going on around us," said centre Jason Spezza. "If we can take care of how we're playing, things will take care of themselves at the end."

Take a look closer to that end, and you'll see the Senators and Bruins are slated to face off at Scotiabank Place on April 5. It's the second-last game of the season for both teams and might well decide top honours in the Northeast — and the home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs that would go along with it.

"If we can keep pace (with the Bruins) here, that could be one of those games that ultimately decides home-ice advantage," said Alfredsson. "Hopefully, we can do that, too. That's a meaningful game, kind of a pre-playoff matchup. Who knows? But Montreal (comes) first."

Around the boards

The red-hot Erik Karlsson can set a new franchise standard for goals in a season by a defenceman if he picks up No. 20 tonight. Perhaps only National Hockey League goal-scoring leader Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning — who hit the 50 mark earlier this week — has been on a bigger tear than Karlsson, who's lit the lamp 11 times in his last 14 games. "You're in those positions where you can score a goal and lately, they've been going in for me," said Karlsson. "Hopefully, they will continue to do that." ... Forward Bobby Butler returns to the Ottawa lineup tonight in place of Kaspars Daugavins. "Butler brings a little more offence and against Montreal, we could use a little more offence," head coach Paul MacLean said in explaining the move. "We have depth in our lineup and we're trying to assess it on a game-by-game basis, who gives us a better opportunity to win." ... The goaltending matchup remains the same as Wednesday, when the Habs prevailed 3-2 in a shootout. Ben Bishop makes his fifth straight start for Ottawa, while Carey Price is back between the pipes for Montreal.

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