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Sens carrying optimism into season's second half

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Goaltender Pascal Leclaire took part in a full practice with the Senators today but isn't likely to be ready for game action Friday against the Blackhawks in Chicago (Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).

Some might call it a first half to forget.

But much as it wasn't the start he envisioned, Ottawa Senators head coach Cory Clouston sees an opportunity to turn some of the bad into good as his team gets set to embark upon the second half of the 2010-11 schedule.

"We don't necessarily want to put it behind us," Clouston said of the Senators' 16-19-5 record to date, which has them sitting in 12th spot in the Eastern Conference. "We want to learn from it. We want to use that to motivate ourselves for the second half. We don’t want to forget about it. We want to use it to improve our game."

Friday night's matchup with the Blackhawks at the United Center in Chicago (8:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200) marks the halfway mark of the current campaign for the Senators. And with an eight-point gap separating them and the Montreal Canadiens, who hold down the final playoff postion in the East, there is clearly work to do if Ottawa is to return to the post-season.

Most important, however, is a steadfast feeling within the team's dressing room that it is still a very achievable goal over the final 41 games of the regular schedule.

"We still have a belief in this team," Clouston said after putting the Senators through a 45-minute practice earlier this afternoon at the United Center. "We know there's still time (to make up ground). Time is running out or getting short. We can't sit back and wait. We've got to start putting wins together. But there's still a belief within this team that we can make the playoffs."

Clouston acknowledged what general manager Bryan Murray also observed Wednesday before the Senators departed for Chicago — this is a team that hasn't played up to its potential. And that's something that must change for any playoff drive to begin.

"We haven't played to the level we want to play at," he said. "We haven't been as consistent. There's been moments throughout the season that we've been good. Especially early on, guys were still getting their health where we wanted it. We had two or three guys coming off fairly major surgeries.

"But I think now, especially after this week (the Senators have five days off between games), we should be healthier than we have been previously and that's important for us. If nothing else, it gives you confidence going into these (upcoming) games when you don't have those nagging little bumps and bruises. We just want to work on consistency and getting healthy."

Turnovers have also been an issue plaguing the Senators and Clouston knows that's also something that needs to be rectified to make any move up the standings.

"We want to put more focus on simplifying our game, eliminating turnovers and getting pucks in deep," said Clouston. "At times, we've been our own worst enemy. Those turnovers have been very costly, not just (in terms of) goals against, but it takes your momentum away."

Around the boards

With a 3-1-2 record away from home in the past month or so, the Senators have been road warriors of late. "We're playing well on the road," said Clouston. "Sometimes, (being away) keeps us a little more focused and keeps our game maybe a little simpler. We've been able to just have a solid road game and it's going to take that tomorrow night." ... While goaltender Pascal Leclaire (lower body) took part in practice today, he isn't likely to be ready for game action against the Blackhawks. "I don't think we're there yet," said Clouston. "He looked good in practice today for the most part. We'll wait and see tomorrow morning. All indications are he should be able to at least back up (expected starter Brian Elliott) tomorrow." ... The Senators return home to face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night at Scotiabank Place (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200) ... Also Saturday, tickets for all home games in February, March and April go on sale at 10 a.m.

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