|Whenever Anton Volchenkov and the Senators lock horns with Patrick Kaleta and the Sabres, it's usually an intense battle of divisional rivals (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images).
Ask around the Ottawa Senators dressing room and nobody, it seems, can quite put a finger on any particular reason why.
But the numbers don't lie. The Senators are 9-4-0 over the past two seasons against the Buffalo Sabres, tonight's opponent at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200). That includes four wins in five tries this season, a streak of success they'd like to continue in the teams' final meeting of 2008-09.
So what's behind the way the Senators keep doing this Buffalo shuffle?
"I think it's a matter of us playing our game," said forward Nick Foligno
. "I don't know if we match up (particularly) well, but we always get excited to play against them. It's a big rivalry and there's emotion in the games. I think everybody likes playing against them and likes doing well.
"I don't know if there's a real rhyme or reason for it but we've got to continue to do that – whatever it is – and just make sure we come ready to play at the drop of the puck and just take it to them."
Added captain Daniel Alfredsson
: "It seems like it's always an important game for us when we've played them (in the past). We've been up for them. We know they're a good team and if you're not ready, they're going to make you pay. I think we've just been ready for them and (have) confidence because we've done pretty well against them."
Senators head coach Cory Clouston hasn't taken long to taste some of that success against the Sabres. His first National Hockey League coaching win came Feb. 7 against Buffalo and he's guided his team to another two victories over its Northeast Division rivals since then.
"We've played, for the most part, a pretty complete game and you have to play a complete game to beat Buffalo," Clouston said after the Senators' pre-game skate earlier today. "Your penalty kill has to be solid, you have to get a couple of goals on the power play here and there and you've got to be solid defensively. You have to stay solid for 60 minutes because they're a dangerous team, and if you let up at all, you're going to be in a lot of trouble."
With their own playoff hopes almost mathematically extinguished, the Senators head into tonight's matchup staring at the first of what should be several opportunities to play spoiler the rest of the way.
"You have to grasp onto something, I think," centre Jason Spezza
said about a role that's surely unfamiliar for a team currently riding an 11-season streak of playoff participation. "You want to try to win games and whatever role it takes for us to get up for games and win games, we don't mind playing it.
"This isn't the position we're used to being in or want to be in, but we might as well make the most of it."
The Sabres, meanwhile, sit in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, just three points beyond a playoff position with two games in hand on the eighth-place Carolina Hurricanes. With another win tonight, the Senators would almost certainly be the biggest culprit if Buffalo fails to advance to the post-season.
"It's a big rivalry and there's emotion in the games. I think everybody likes playing against them and likes doing well. I don't know if there's a real rhyme or reason for it but we've got to continue to do that – whatever it is – and just make sure we come ready to play at the drop of the puck and just take it to them." - Nick Foligno
Not that they'll admit to taking any particular satisfaction about eliminating a bitter division rival.
"You don't," said Alfredsson. "You just want to win every game. We had a tough first part of the year and now we just want to improve and get better and show that we can consistently win games. Against teams in your own division, if you can beat them, maybe it feels a little bit better. As far as that being a goal for us, I don't think so."
Foligno agreed, saying "you just like to do as well as you can."
"That (could be) an added incentive but it's not really a focus or our concern," he added. "We're more worried about ourselves and whatever happens with other teams... it's in our control but out of our control at the same time.
"We just want to play well as a team and, hopefully, continue to get better. It's all you can ask."
Around the boards
Forward Mike Comrie, the latest in the Ottawa dressing room to feel the bite of the flu bug, sat out practice this morning. Clouston is still hopeful he'll play tonight. "He's feeling a little better this morning and, hopefully, if it keeps going in the right direction, he'll be fine," he said ... Comrie's absence would force some line juggling at the top. Clouston had him playing alongside Alfredsson and Mike Fisher in practice on Monday, with Ryan Shannon working with Spezza and Dany Heatley ... Brian Elliott (12-4-3), who's on a 5-0-0 roll at the moment, makes the start in goal tonight for the Senators ... Fewer than 1,000 tickets are left for the Buffalo game, while 500 remain for Thursday's visit by the Montreal Canadiens (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200).