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Tight race, tight games await Sens down stretch

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Home-ice advantage didn't exactly prove to be just that.

But the Ottawa Senators are hoping a little bit of Florida sunshine — and some extra encouragement from their biggest mentors — might prove to be just the right tonic to get themselves on track as the 2011-12 season moves into its most critical phase.

Accompanied by a group of 17 of their fathers, the Senators hope to quickly put behind them a five-game homestand that produced just four of a possible 10 points. Tuesday night, they'll face off against the Tampa Bay Lightning (7 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200) before tangling with the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., no TV, Team 1200).

"It was disappointing, for sure," Senators centre Jason Spezza said of a home stretch that produced a 1-2-2 record. "Regardless of whether we get wins or we get losses here down the stretch, we’ve got to put them behind us quickly. You’ve got to focus on the next game and try to pick up wins.

"It’s that time of year when wins become more of a premium. There’s a lot of three-point games and you’ve got to pick up wins whenever you can."

Added forward Nick Foligno: "We weren’t happy with our homestand, but we’re still in a good position for a playoff spot. We just need to continue to find ways to win and really solidify our spot, and just continue to be a good hockey team

The Senators' 2-6-2 record in their last 10 games has all but wiped out the comfortable margin they held over ninth place, currently occupied by the Washington Capitals. Ottawa (28-22-8) sits seventh in the Eastern Conference, but only two points better than the eight-place Toronto Maple Leafs and three abreast of the Caps.

Still, they're in good position to still control much of their fate over their final 24 games.

"We just need to win games," Senators head coach Paul MacLean said following his team's hour-long on-ice session at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. "We have 24 games left to play and we want to continue to grow as a team and build as a team. When you look at it, we still are in a good spot and spot that we like. We have to continue to build off that."

Over the last 10 games, the Senators have been outscored 30-16. It's the former number, in particular, that MacLean believes needs to change as the battle for the post-season continues to ratchet up in intensity.

"That’s going to become a focus for us moving forward," he said. "If you spend too much time in your own zone, bad things can happen, so we don’t want to spend a whole lot of time in our zone. But in saying that, we know we’re going to have to play there at some point in time and that is a part of our game we can get better at.

"It’s important throughout the year but at this time of year, the games are tighter, there’s less opportunity on power plays and the ice seems to become smaller and smaller. So being able to defend … the biggest thing is being confident (about it) and doing it consistently."

Foligno believes it's a matter of getting back to what made them successful earlier in the season.

"We’re so dangerous when we’re skating and that’s something we’re going to focus on," he said. "Try to use that speed to create chances and keep it out of our net."

Around the boards

With only two games on their slate this week, the Senators should soon have a more accurate idea of where they stand in the playoff picture. While Ottawa has played 58 games to date — more than any other team in the Eastern Confernce — its light slate this week figures to allow many rivals just above and below the Sens in the standings to start making up their games in hand ... MacLean has tabbed Craig Anderson to make his league-high 51st start on Tuesday against the Lightning, but will hold off on any lineup changes until game day. Anderson owns a 0.98 goals-against average in his last four starts against Tampa, including a shutout ... The Senators have won four of their last five against the Bolts and are 21-6-3 vs. Tampa since 2003-04 ... With 50 points, Erik Karlsson is the first Senators blueliner to hit that plateau since Wade Redden in 2005-06. The franchise record for defenceman is 63 points, recorded by Norm Maciver in Ottawa's expansion season of 1992-93.

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