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Sens aim to extend winning Hab-it

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
So far this season, at least, the Ottawa Senators have had the Montreal Canadiens’ number.

But none of that diminishes the task at hand this week.

Tuesday night at the Bell Centre in Montreal, the two Northeast Division rivals kick off  a home-and-home series that could greatly change the face of the Eastern Conference standings by week’s end.

For the Senators, tonight’s game (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200) represents a chance to widen their edge over the Habs – a gap that has slipped to a mere three points in recent weeks. A victory could also be a massive momentum builder for a team that has struggled without top guns Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley in the lineup, and won’t have either again tonight.

“For us, it’s a statement game when we’re missing Alfredsson and Heatley,” Senators head coach John Paddock said after the team’s pre-game skate at the Bell Centre on Tuesday. “But I think it’s an important game to show some passion and some urgency, and I think we will.

“I expect and there should be a sense of urgency because of who we’re playing and where we’re playing.”

The Senators and Canadiens haven’t played since Nov. 19, but will meet five more times before season’s end – including this Saturday at Scotiabank Place (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200). Ottawa is 3-0 against the Habs this season and so, too, is goaltender Martin Gerber, who gets the starting nod tonight.

But despite all that, Paddock said the Senators are well aware of the challenge his troops will face tonight, regardless of who is or isn’t in the lineup.

“We’ve had respect for them from the start of the season,” he said. “The difference in the standings was the four-point games (the Senators won), so we knew who they were and what they were and that they were right there.”

The teams’ performance since their last meeting – at least in terms of victories – has been almost identical. Indeed, Paddock pointed out “since Nov. 19, when we beat them to go seven points up, they’ve won one more hockey game than us,”

“That doesn’t seem possible because we’ve been in the throes of a couple of slumps here, but they’ve won one more game than us and we’re still in first place.”

A Montreal sweep this week, though, could change all that and the Senators know it.

“It’s never good that a team’s closed the gap,” said Senators centre Jason Spezza. “We’ve got a couple of big games coming up this week. We’ve got these guys twice, they’re going to be gunning for us and they’re playing real well right now.

“If there’s ever a good time for a test and (gaining) a little confidence with a couple of wins, it’s right now.”

The Senators put themselves in this predicament with a 3-7-0 stretch of hockey over the last 10 games. But defenceman Wade Redden, for one, thinks the reduced comfort zone atop the conference and division standings might be just what’s needed for the team to pick up its overall game.

“I don’t think we want to have that comfortable feeling,” he said. “We’ve been on top of the conference all year. Our focus has to be finishing first – that’s our goal – but I think we also want to be playing well and getting our game where it needs to be.”

Around the boards

The Senators are still hopeful that Alfredsson (hip flexor) can return Thursday against the Florida Panthers. “I think he’s hoping to play Thursday, but I don’t think it’s a lock he’ll play Thursday,” said Paddock … Forwards Patrick Eaves (neck/shoulder) and Cody Bass (ankle) also won’t play tonight … About 1,000 tickets remain for Thursday’s visit by the Panthers to Scotiabank Place. Fewer than 50 tickets are left for Saturday’s rematch with the Canadiens.

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