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Senators still running with the pack in East

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Chris Kelly's hat-trick performance on Sunday helped the Senators end a lengthy scoring drought, along with earning a valuable two points toward their playoff quest with a win at Madison Square Garden (Getty Images).

MONTREAL — Upon first glance, it seemed the most subtle of shifts in the standings.

With their hard-earned 3-1 victory over the Rangers on Sunday night in New York, the Ottawa Senators snared sole possession of ninth spot in the Eastern Conference. Most importantly, Ottawa cut the gap between itself and the Atlanta Thrashers — who currently hold the eighth and final playoff position — to five points.

While December might seem a little early to be overly concerned with such thoughts, the Senators know full well that running with the pack, so to speak, remains a vital goal even now. With overtime and shootouts producing so many three-point games in the National Hockey League these days, maintaining touch with the playoff pack gets more crucial by the day.

"You don't want to get too far behind the eight-ball," said centre Chris Kelly, whose hat-trick performance Sunday at Madison Square Garden went a long way toward helping the Senators end a three-game winless streak. "You're scrambling after Christmas because everyone knows how hard points are to get later on in the year. So we want to put ourselves in a good spot, but we (also) don't look to get too far ahead.

"We got ourselves into this position but if you start looking two or three games down the road and forget about the ones in front of you, that's never good."

In other words, the Senators' minds are now squarely on Tuesday's matchup with the Canadiens (7 p.m., TSN, Team 1200) at the Bell Centre — the last of three meetings this season between the teams in Montreal. It's one of those Northeast Division showdowns that can go a long way toward furthering Ottawa's post-season ambitions.

"We've got to stay in the mix," said goaltender Pascal Leclaire, who made some key early saves in backstopping the win over the Blueshirts. "That's the most important thing. You don't want to fall too far behind because after that, you get into division games and it's hard to gain points on teams.

"As long as you're in the mix, you're all right, then starting in January and February, you start following the standings a little more. But as long as we're in the mix right now, we'll be good."

"You don't want to get too far behind the eight-ball. You're scrambling after Christmas because everyone knows how hard points are to get later on in the year. So we want to put ourselves in a good spot, but we (also) don't look to get too far ahead. We got ourselves into this position but if you start looking two or three games down the road and forget about the ones in front of you, that's never good." - Chris Kelly
Captain Daniel Alfredsson agreed it's important for the Senators to maintain as narrow a focus as possible, while remaining constantly aware of the bigger picture.

"That's the battle that goes on throughout the year, unless you take off (quickly) as a few have," he said following an optional team workout earlier today at the Bell Centre. "You're going to have that (group of) six, seven or eight teams who are going to be in that position. You just approach every game as an important one. You can't say this one is more important than that one. Every one is important."

Perhaps none more so than the one Sunday in New York during which, among other things, the Senators halted a team-record 202:57 goalless stretch of hockey. Clearly, it was a much more buoyant group that hit the ice today at the Bell Centre.

"After the shootout loss (1-0 on Saturday to the Buffalo Sabres), we were disappointed but we felt good about how we played," said Senators head coach Cory Clouston. "I think you saw that (Sunday) night. We've just got to make sure that we're ready to go tomorrow, that we're not taking a step back with our focus or intensity and just keep building on our last couple of games.

"We just found a way to win the game (Sunday). We didn't get discouraged after the first period, when we felt we could have had a one- or two-goal lead. We stuck with it and, for the most part, the last two games we played a full 60 (minutes)."

Around the boards

Kelly is best known for his defensive and penalty-killing abilities, so he's taken his fair share of ribbing from his teammates about Sunday's three-goal effort. But the Senators know the versatile centre is more than capable around the net. "He's such a smart player," said centre Jason Spezza. "He doesn't take a lot of chances because he plays more on the defensive side of the puck. But he does (bring) offence and he showed it last night, Hopefully, he keeps rolling." ... According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Kelly became only the third player in team history to record a hat trick while scoring every Senators goal in a victory. The others: Spezza (Dec. 6, 2008, vs. Pittsburgh) and Bob Kudelski (Jan. 10, 1993, vs. San Jose) ... The Senators and the Rangers square off again Thursday night at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet Sens, Team 1200), with the New Jersey Devils visiting the capital on Friday (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200).

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