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Sens bring quiet confidence into new season

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Defenceman Sergei Gonchar is convinced the Senators have the makings of a contending team in the Eastern Conference, despite with others might say (Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).

Sergei Gonchar casts a glance around the Ottawa Senators dressing room and sees a team fully deserving of contender status.

And he's more than willing to share that thought with anyone who might suggest otherwise.

"People don't give them enough credit," the veteran blueliner said earlier today when asked for his pre-season evaluation of the team he joined as a free agent back in July. "They're better than people think. (We) have a lot of skill here and a lot of talent. Maybe in previous years, they didn't use it as much and people didn't recognize it.

"But when we're on the same page and doing things as a team ... this club has the potential to surprise a lot of people."

While many pundits suggest the Senators enter the 2010-11 season firmly straddling the playoff line in the Eastern Conference — as in, predicted to finish somewhere between seventh and 10th place — this is a team carrying a quiet confidence into the new campaign. Much of it borne by the way they pushed the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, even with three key regulars injured and out of the lineup.

Indeed, head coach Cory Clouston used the term "unfinished business" to describe the sentiment of the players who felt the door was open for a lengthy playoff run if they'd found a way to get past a Penguins team that featured Gonchar as the power-play quarterback.

"It was definitely something to build on," Clouston said following the Senators' practice at the Bell Sensplex. "And I think it's created some motivation for us and some optimism, definitely, for this season as well."

Added centre Mike Fisher: "I think it could have been a different story last year with a few key (injured) guys in there. We were a really good team and there’s no reason why we can’t be better than that this year. We’re all for surprising teams and teams maybe taking us a little lightly. But if we have a good start, things will change."

For the most part, the group that gave the Penguins a run last spring is back intact, save for the addition of Gonchar on the blue line. While Zack Smith didn't start last season on the Senators roster, the gritty forward saw action in all six playoff games against Pittsburgh.

"We're happy with our team," said Clouston. "We like the small additions that we have, as far as our forwards and defence. I think Zack Smith had an outstanding camp — if you want to consider him a new player — and we’re excited about Sergei joining our club.

"Other than that, it's a lot of similar faces (but) I think we’ve got a little more depth up front than we had and I like the offence we can bring from our back end as well."

Captain Daniel Alfredsson is also enthused about the prospects for a new season, which begins Friday with the Buffalo Sabres' visit to Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet East, Team 1200).

"We have a good mix of everything," he said. "It’s just a matter of going out and putting everything together and, hopefully, we can do that early on. It would be really nice to get off to a good start. We can take a little bit of pressure off ourselves and we’re pretty healthy and ready to go."

But there is no shortage of confidence that this group can get the job done from Day 1.

"We do believe we have a good team and maybe we haven’t gotten the respect," said defenceman Chris Campoli. "Some people have picked us to miss the playoffs … the criticism is there but you really can’t pay attention to it. We’re comfortable and confident in the guys we have in the room and I think we know what we have and what we’re capable of (doing).

"So we go into the year believing that we’re a good hockey club and, credit or no credit, we have to go out and prove it, and that’s what we’re really looking to do."

Hale clears waivers, headed to Binghamton

Veteran defenceman David Hale cleared National Hockey League waivers at noon today and has been re-assigned to the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League.

While Hale, who has 302 games of NHL experience with the New Jersey Devils, Calgary Flames, Phoenix Coyotes and Tampa Bay Lightning, impressed the Senators coaching staff with his play in training camp, his two-way contract dictated the move to the farm with Ottawa tight up against the salary cap.

"It came as a bit of a shock, but I knew the situation I was getting into with the contract that I signed," said Hale. "We were just getting ready for the season, polishing things up and it was certainly unexpected. But I'll take it in stride and go from there."

Seven defencemen, all of them on one-way contracts, remain on the Senators roster, including Filip Kuba, who is expected to miss another three weeks with a broken right leg.

Around the boards

Centre Jason Spezza left practice early today with an undisclosed ailment but is expected to be good to go for Friday's season-opener. "It was a little bit of a tweak, but he should be fine," said Clouston. "We just wanted to make sure he was okay. He should be okay to practise tomorrow." ... The Senators will start the season with these defensive pairings: Chris Phillips-Erik Karlsson, Sergei Gonchar-Chris Campoli and Matt Carkner-Brian Lee. "He's a great partner and one of the best offensive defencemen ever to play," Campoli said of lining up alongside Gonchar. "I'm excited about the opportunity to play with him and things have gone pretty well so far. We want to build on that."

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