For the first time in more than four months, the Ottawa Senators are looking up at somebody else in the Eastern Conference standings.
No sense wasting any time, though, in reversing that situation.
With a win Monday night over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200), the Senators can regain the position they’d held for 138 straight days. Until Sunday, that is, when New Jersey’s 2-1 overtime victory over the Washington Capitals vaulted the Devils into top spot in the conference.
Heading into tonight’s play, New Jersey owns 79 points and the Senators 78, with the latter holding a game in hand – tonight’s game against the Leafs, as it turns out.
“Win tonight and we’re back on top,” said Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson
Added head coach John Paddock: “We’ll look at it as we have a game in hand. But you have to win the games in hand. So hopefully (Tuesday) morning, Jersey’s back in the position they’ve been in for awhile.”
But more importantly, the Senators want to build on the momentum of Saturday’s 4-3 overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, in which they erased a three-goal second-period deficit.
“The biggest thing is, we’ve just got to keep going and keep getting better here,” said Alfredsson. “We’re going in the right direction, which is good to see.”
It’s also a must, given the tightness of the pack behind them. The Penguins are one point back, while the Senators’ edge over the Montreal Canadiens in the Northeast Division remains a slim three points.
“We want to win tonight and get back into first place,” said Senators centre Jason Spezza
. “That’s our goal for the rest of the season here, to get playing good hockey and try to finish first. If anything, it’s a good challenge now to have teams knocking on the door. Everybody seems to be getting points every night, so we’ve got to be good.”
Paddock is hopeful that the bump back to second in the East might inspire the kind of urgency that fuelled Ottawa’s run to the Stanley Cup final last season. After struggling before Christmas, the Senators nearly overhauled the Buffalo Sabres down the stretch before knocking them off in the Eastern Conference final.
“We didn’t have that pressure for a long time – teams were far enough behind us,” said Paddock. “Well, they’re close enough now … in a way, maybe that’s a good thing.
“Maybe it’s better this way, where you’re really fighting for something, to be sharp for the playoffs. There’s not a six or eight-point gap (anymore). I think everybody is aware of it or should be aware of it, and we’ll respond accordingly.”
Said Spezza: “We’ve got nothing else to do now but try to win hockey games because it’s a tight race. That should help motivate us. We no longer have that cushion, so it’s no longer anything that needs to be talked about.”
While the Leafs stand 14th in the conference, nobody’s looking past a team that won its previous two meetings against Ottawa.
“There’s always something at stake against these guys,” Senators defenceman Wade Redden said of their provincial rivals. “They work hard and they battle hard, and we know that going in.
“It’s a game that we want (to win) to get on a bit of a roll. We had a big win (Saturday) and we want to keep building on that and have a big effort tonight.” Around the boards
Ray Emery (12-10-4) makes his fifth straight start in goal tonight … Dean McAmmond will miss a second straight game because of a lingering cold/flu virus. “He’s feeling a little bit better, but (doesn’t have) enough energy to play the game,” said Paddock … No further word yet on injured winger Chris Neil
(knee) … Veteran defenceman Luke Richardson plays his 1,400th NHL game tonight.