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Senators remain wary of wounded Penguins

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Jason Spezza and the Senators are on an 8-1-2 roll, but can't afford to look past the slumping Pittsburgh Penguins tonight (Getty Images).

Far be it for the Ottawa Senators to look past the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Even if tonight's foe at the Consol Energy Center in the Steel City (7 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200) has dropped four straight, fallen below the Senators in the Eastern Conference standings and is dealing with a massive rash of injuries — most notably to superstar centre Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal, another huge loss at the pivot position.

Still, given all that, Ottawa remains wary of a wounded but dangerous foe as it embarks on a key stretch that features eight road games in their next nine outings heading into the National Hockey League's annual all-star break at the end of the month.

"We know we're not a team that can take anybody for granted," centre Jason Spezza said following the Senators' pre-game skate earlier today. "We're the type of team that has to work hard every night. We (don't have) the highest-powered offence, where we can come into a building and expect to out-skill another team. We have to work hard for our wins.

"We're happy with where we are, but we're humble in our approach because we know we can't take anybody lightly."

The Senators (22-15-6) arrived in the Steel City as one of the NHL's hottest team, riding an 8-1-2 streak that has vaulted them into fifth place in the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh (21-15-4), meanwhile, has dropped four straight in skidding to eighth spot, four points behind Ottawa but with three games in hand. The Pens' offence has also dried up in that stretch, producing only five goals in the four setbacks.

Still, the Senators no doubt haven't forgotten their Nov. 25 visit to Consol Energy Center, when the Penguins erupted for four goals in a seven-minute span of the first period en route to a 6-3 triumph. Crosby and Staal both had major hands in that one, but even with that duo out, Ottawa knows plenty of firepower remains on hand.

"We've been in their shoes before, so we know how they're feeling," said defenceman Jared Cowen, who notched four points when the Senators dumped Pittsburgh 6-4 on Dec. 16 at Scotiabank Place. "We know we need a strong start tonight to give ourselves a chance in the first period. They're still a good team. They've got lots of guys out, but they're still good players and the challenge for us tonight is to keep up with them."

While he's been pleased with his team's play of late, head coach Paul MacLean knows the Senators still have some work to do in terms of improving their consistency on a nightly basis.

"The challenge for us is to find the consistency in our game night after night," he said. "Right now, we're finding a way to win (games), but not always playing well throughout the game. To be a good team in the National Hockey League and be an elite team, you have to do it every night. That's the battle we have right now and it continues here tonight."

Around the boards

Craig Anderson, the NHL's leader in games played, makes his 39th appearance of the season in goal for the Senators tonight. Since being pulled in a 6-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 27, Anderson has enjoyed one of his best stretches of the season, posting a 5-0-1 record with a 2.37 goals-against average and .926 save percentage ... Brent Johnson gets the start between the pipes for the Penguins ... MacLean will re-insert defenceman Brian Lee back into the lineup tonight, with Matt Carkner sitting out. "We're trying to use everybody, and we want everybody to be a part of it," said MacLean ... Ottawa isn't expecting forward Jesse Winchester back anytime soon. "I would say the concussion he has is significant," said MacLean. "I believe the other day when he tried to exercise he had symptoms again, so we just have to be patient." ... Forward James Neal, the Penguins' leading goal scorer, was originally feared to be sidelined with a broken foot. But an MRI revealed only a bone bruise and he plans to suit up this evening ... The Senators' road trip continues Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York against the Rangers (7 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200).

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