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Tests getting tougher for Senators

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
One by one, the big tests keep lining up for the Ottawa Senators.

There is little in the way of a breather in the days ahead. Not with the Senators heading to Montreal to take on the high-octane Canadiens on Tuesday night (7 p.m., TSN, Team 1200) and the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers lying in wait at Madison Square Garden next Monday.

Both teams also visit Scotiabank Place next week: the Canadiens on Nov. 20, the Rangers two days later for a Saturday matinee on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada. These four matchups with two of the conference's elite teams – at least in the early going – offer an interesting measuring stick for the 6-6-2 Senators.

"Montreal's probably the class of the East right now with the Rangers," Senators centre Jason Spezza said after the team's practice earlier today at the Bell Sensplex. "We've got some tough games coming up in the next week, so it's a good chance for us to judge ourselves as a team and see what we've got against some of the better teams."

What Senators head coach Craig Hartsburg currently has is a team that has taken major steps forward on the defensive end of the ice. Ottawa has allowed only nine goals in regulation time in its past six games, a stretch in which it has posted a 4-1-1 record. But Hartsburg said the job is far from done yet, especially on the offensive side of their game.

"As a team, we have to improve in all areas," he said. "Defensively, we've made some strides but I still think there's more improvement (to be made) there. When you have the puck, you should be able to do more offensively. We'd like to score more goals but to get to that point you have to find ways to have the puck more.

"I think that defensive structure has improved but it still has to be better."

It's a good chance for us to judge ourselves as a team and see what we've got against some of the better teams - Jason Spezza
The Canadiens provide yet another major challenge in that area. The Senators limited Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals and the balanced, deep Philadelphia Flyers to a single goal apiece in a pair of home-ice wins last week. Captain Daniel Alfredsson agreed more of the same will be needed against the offensively potent Habs.

"Solid neutral-zone play (is vital)," he said. "Make sure you come back hard all the time. Limit their time and space with the puck. Montreal's probably one of the best transition teams turning from defence to offence, because they've got so much skill up front.

"On defence, (Andrei) Markov, (Roman) Hamrlik and (Francis) Bouillon, they're really good at moving the puck. You've got to be really smart about where you're turning the puck over."

Added defenceman Alex Picard: "They're really skilled. They've got three lines that can score, much like the Flyers. We're going to have to be on top of our game and be ready for sure."

Around the boards

Alex Auld (5-2-1), who leads the National Hockey League with a 1.84 goals-against average, returns to the Senators net against the Canadiens ... Fewer than 1,500 tickets remain for Thursday's home game against the New York Islanders, while only 100 are left for the Canadiens' visit to Scotiabank Place on Nov. 20.

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