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Sens in thick of wild race

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
For all their struggles in recent weeks, the Ottawa Senators have arrived at this simple truth.

Win on Thursday night in Montreal against the Canadiens (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200) and the Senators climb back into top spot in the Northeast Division. Maybe even the front of the pack in the Eastern Conference, depending on what happens in Pittsburgh tonight between the Penguins and Buffalo Sabres.

Just the latest chapter, it seems, in a wild and woolly chase for playoff positioning in the East that seems destined to go right down to the very last day of the regular season. All of which, too, puts added importance on each of the 11 games remaining in the Senators’ schedule – nine of which will be played against division rivals.

“Pretty much the rest of the way here, they’re important games,” Senators centre Jason Spezza said Wednesday morning before the team hit the road for Montreal and tomorrow night’s huge showdown with the Habs. “This is the time of the year when you start watching the standings every day. When everybody comes into the rink, they take a peek at the standings to see what happened last night.

“It’s an exciting part of the year, especially when we’re playing for first place now against a Canadian team in a building that’s usually pretty exciting to play in. I’m sure it’ll be a pretty emotional game.”

There has been plenty to look at lately. Almost every night, almost every game shakes up the standings in some way. The Canadiens leapfrogged the New Jersey Devils into first place in the conference with a 4-0 shutout win Tuesday night. Depending on what happens in the next few days, though, they could wind up exchanging places with the fifth-place Senators. And the gap between those two teams is a slim two points.

“The division’s going to be that way right down to the end,” said Senators head coach/general manager Bryan Murray. “I think the games are very competitive… I expect all the way through, it’ll be like that.”

But the massive slant toward divisional play down the stretch – the Senators face the Canadiens three times, and the Bruins, Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs twice each – also offers up a golden opportunity. Win the bulk of them, and Ottawa is looking at no worse than a No. 2 seed for the playoffs, with the top rung a definite possibility.

“We have it in our hands now,” said Murray. “We have a chance, if we play well tomorrow – and we have to play well – but if we do, we have a chance to be tied with (Montreal) after the game (the Senators would hold the edge based on most wins).

“With 10 games to go, who knows what will happen?”

But this much is for sure: The Senators, with two straight wins in their pockets and a growing confidence in front of red-hot goaltender Martin Gerber, like the way their game is progressing with the post-season clearly now in sight.

“We have to keep building on the way we’ve been playing the last two games and keep getting better,” said forward Dany Heatley, whose hat trick fuelled Tuesday night’s 4-1 victory over the Boston Bruins at Scotiabank Place. “I think we’ve simplified our game and it’s seemed to work for us. The key for us is to be simple, work hard… we’ve got a lot of talent here and if we do those things, usually we’re in good shape.”

Around the boards

Captain Daniel Alfredsson (back) skated briefly before practice this morning, but Murray said “it doesn’t look like” he’ll suit up against the Canadiens. It would mark the fifth straight game Alfredsson has missed because of muscle spasms in his back … Defenceman Luke Richardson (foot) sat out practice today, but Murray expects the veteran blueliner should be available against the Canadiens … Chris Neil (knee) skated for the second straight day and said he's aiming to be back for the final three games of the regular season, at least. "My knee's coming along great," he said. "I still don't know the timetable of when I'm going to be back, but it feels good on the ice." ... Gerber will make his seventh straight start tomorrow night. He’s allowed just seven goals in his last four outings.

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