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Sens keep grinding out wins

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Their ranks keep getting thinner, but the Ottawa Senators keep grinding out the wins.

Tuesday night, however, might provide the toughest test yet for the Senators, who arrived in Boston for Tuesday night’s matchup with the Bruins (7 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200) without Mike Fisher (strained oblique muscle). The gritty centre joined blueliner Anton Volchenkov (broken finger) and forward Patrick Eaves (separated shoulder) on an injury list that’s as lengthy right now as it’s been all season.

But through it all, the Senators have strung together five straight wins to solidify their spot atop the Eastern Conference standings (21-7-3). It’s similar to the resolve the team showed a year ago, when they put together the hot streak that turned around their season with an injured Fisher and Jason Spezza on the sidelines.

“They’re finding ways,” Senators head coach John Paddock said after Tuesday’s pre-game skate at TD BankNorth Garden. “They seemed to show it last year when we were tested without Spezza and Fisher. It just makes guys pay attention a little more, dig down a little more, maybe battle a little more and to date, they’ve been able to do that.”

On a happier note, Senators defenceman Andrej Meszaros, who’d been nursing a bruised foot, practised with the team Tuesday morning and declared himself ready to go. Meszaros, the Senators’ top pick in the 2004 National Hockey League entry draft, hasn’t missed a game since joining the team two seasons ago, an ironman streak that will reach 196 games on Tuesday night.

The battle with the Bruins, who own the East’s second-best record (18-11-3) and trail the Senators by six points, figures to be another low-scoring affair. The teams met twice in early November, with the Senators prevailing 3-2 at Scotiabank Place and 2-1 in a shootout the following night in Beantown.

“We have to realize that it’s probably going to be a low-scoring game,” said Paddock. “Whether that means a lot of opportunities either way for the power plays, I’m not sure. But it’s going to be a low-scoring game and we’re going to have to find a way or manufacture a way to score a couple of goals.”

The Bruins have played a tighter brand of hockey under new head coach Claude Julien this season, allowing the second-fewest goals (78) in the Eastern Conference.

“They’re buying into this real defensive system now, a real patient game,” said Senators forward Dany Heatley. “That’s the way Claude coaches. We just have to be prepared for that and play our game.”

“You can’t make mistakes,” added forward Shean Donovan, who played for the Bruins last season. “You can’t turn it over in the neutral zone because they have forwards who can skate. They play good defence but whenever you turn it over, it’s trouble, because they’ll get it going the other way and they can hurt you.”

Paddock believes 6-foot-9 blueliner Zdeno Chara, a former Senator, has become even more effective in Julien’s disciplined system.

“Claude came in and gave them a defensive structure,” said Paddock. “What they’re doing isn’t any different than New Jersey did last year, and it was good for 105 points until (Julien was fired late in the season).

“There’s just more support for each other on the ice (this season). A player like (Chara) couldn’t do it by himself last year because there was no structure around him, and he’s probably back to being the player he was with us, which (means) he takes care of other teams’ top players. But there has to be a system for each individual to play in.”

Since being acquired in a trade from the Phoenix Coyotes, goaltender Alex Auld has posted a 4-1 record with a 1.40 goals-against average and .955 save percentage. Auld, who blanked the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-0 on Saturday, gets his sixth straight start tonight against the Senators’ Martin Gerber (15-4-1, 2.35 GAA).

The Senators’ mini-road trip concludes Thursday night in Atlanta.

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