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Sens aim to strike first

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
It’s only the first chapter of what the Ottawa Senators firmly believe will be a full-length tale, not just a mere post-season short story.

But the Senators know full well the momentum that can be gained with a road victory in the opening game of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series tonight at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200). Especially against a Penguins team that, in almost every corner, is heavily favoured to bring an early end to Ottawa’s season.

“We (have a chance) to start the series off on a good note and maybe put some pressure on them coming into Game 2,” Senators centre Jason Spezza said following the team’s pre-game skate today. “It might put a little pressure on (the Penguins) that they’re not feeling right now. They have a lot of confidence coming into the series and we’re the team that maybe feels like we want to get off to a good start.”

It’s a “road warrior” philosophy that served Ottawa well in its run to the Stanley Cup final a year ago. In both the second and third round, the Senators went into New Jersey and Buffalo, grabbed a win in Game 1 and went on to take each series in five games.

But even if they succeed again tonight, the Senators know that one game doesn’t make a series. And they’re prepared for this to be a long haul against a maturing Penguins team built around superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

“I’ve been on two teams that won the Stanley Cup after losing the first game of the playoffs,” said veteran forward Cory Stillman, who earned his rings with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. “And right away, had everybody writing them off. We were down 1-0 against the Islanders (after losing the opener) in Tampa and down 2-0 to Montreal (with the Hurricanes). What happened there? We came out, we worked hard, we had nothing to lose.

“Right now, there’s not a lot of people picking us to probably go even past four games. It’s a matter of going out, playing the game right, working hard and if we get a bounce, who knows what might happen?”

Added Spezza: “You’re not going to win the series in the first game or the first couple of games. We expect this to be a long series.”

With forwards Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly likely all out for the duration of the series with significant injuries, head coach/general manager Bryan Murray is counting toward others to pick up the slack. He points toward forward Antoine Vermette, who scored four goals in the Senators’ final two games after Alfredsson and Fisher went down, as one player who has already stepped up in a big way as the new second-line centre.

“He’s played well in the few games he’s had a chance to play there,” Murray said of Vermette. “I’ve found out a lot about him. He did want to be more of an offensive guy. He’s getting the chance now.”

In Spezza’s mind, the whole team has a chance to author quite the playoff story. Given the Senators’ struggles down the stretch and the huge injury holes that now exist, “the hockey world’s kind of written us off.”

“So I think we want to prove to people that we’re a better team than we’re getting credit for right now,” said Spezza. “If we can get things together here, we’ll have wrote a pretty good story on how to get things together at the right time.

“We feel like we can do that and even though we’re missing some bodies and we’re not as healthy as we would like, we still have a real good chance to win. It’ll be something that will be talked about for a long time if we can get this thing together and get rolling at the right time.”

Murray remains confident his team can deal with the hand it’s been dealt.

“We just have to allow our players to play and do what they can do,” he said. “Our players are all aware of the injuries. They’re all aware of the unlikelihood of any of those players coming back this series.

“We just have to prepare to play and hope that we can compete at a good level with this hockey team and keep the goals-against down and make it a challenge for Pittsburgh to beat us.”

Around the boards

Martin Gerber, who started the final 17 games of the regular season, gets the call in goal tonight … Murray didn’t announce any final lineup decisions after practice … Fewer than 1,000 tickets remain for each of the Senators’ first two home playoff games, next Monday and Wednesday at Scotiabank Place.

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