First is definitely the place to be

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 12:49 PM ET

The Senators haven't been in second place in their division for about four months.

But that could change tonight.

First place in the Northeast Division will be on the line when the Senators host the second-place Buffalo Sabres at Scotiabank Place.

A Sabres victory would not only give them first in the division, but would also move them into second in the Eastern Conference standings -- behind the Carolina Hurricanes. Ottawa would fall to No. 4 overall.

The last time the Senators were in second place in their division was Nov. 19, when they trailed the Montreal Canadiens by a point.

This game may not mean a whole lot considering the Senators and Sabres will square off another three times after tonight, but with the race for top spot so tight -- and only 16 games remaining for both sides -- neither team wants to lose any ground.

"We are well aware that these points are huge," said Senators centre Bryan Smolinski as the club enjoyed a day off following a 3-2 shootout loss in Boston on Thursday. "We've been playing some great hockey, but the Buffalo Sabres have been right there with us.

"Just when we thought we were going to pull ahead, you look behind you and there they are only a point back. You have to give them credit. A lot of what they've been able to accomplish is because of the great goaltending they've received from Ryan Miller. He's just been great for them. He's been one of the top goaltenders in the league."

The Sabres, who learned yesterday they'll be without winger Jochen Hecht for at least two weeks because of a knee injury, have been gunning for the Senators all season.

"For us, Ottawa has always been the team to beat," said Sabres centre Daniel Briere, a Gatineau native. "Not only in our division or in our conference, but in the entire NHL."

The Sabres, who are making a solid case for Lindy Ruff to be named the NHL's coach of the year, have been pleased with their success. This is a team built around speed and its thriving in the new NHL.

"Our team has changed a lot since the beginning of the season," said Briere, who shares the captaincy with fellow forward Chris Drury.

"Our young players have gained a lot of experience and our goalie Ryan Miller has been terrific of late."

MEASURING UP: Senators GM John Muckler had a chat with NHL VP Colin Campbell after the stick-measuring fiasco prior to the shootout in Boston on Thursday. Muckler thought the way the officials conducted the measurements was embarrassing and wasn't happy that centre Antoine Vermette had his stick ruled illegal. "I didn't like the way it was handled and I didn't think it looked very good for anybody involved," said Muckler. With a lot of questions being asked by the media about the legality of blades, the NHL decided to measure all sticks before shootouts after the Olympic break. Part of the issue, according to Muckler, is players often shave their sticks down and that's why Vermette's was ruled illegal, making him ineligible for the shootout. Centre Jason Spezza, one of the few players in the league that continues to use a wooden twig, coincidentally switched to an aluminum model for the shootout. Muckler said the league's process needs to be reviewed.

GETTING CLOSER: Senators winger Martin Havlat is inching closer to a comeback, but needs to see shoulder specialist Anthony Miniaci before returning to the lineup. That meeting is expected to take place next month. If all goes well, Havlat would then get clearance to practise with physical contact while preparing for the final part of the regular-season schedule. "I'm feeling pretty good and I'm making progress every day, but I'm not ready for the physical play and until I get that clearance I won't be able to come back," said Havlat.

bruce.garrioch@ott.sunpub.com


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