Cab a passenger short

DON BRENNAN -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:48 AM ET

The Canadian Cab will be without one of its two scheduled front-seat passengers when it pulls up to the Corel Centre tonight.

Senators centre Jason Spezza is expected to miss his fourth straight game with a pulled chest muscle when the Carolina Hurricanes -- and Eric Staal, his fellow forward on the Olympic team's three-man taxi squad -- drop by for a game between the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference.

"He's being treated again (yesterday), he had it checked again (Monday) night," Ottawa coach Bryan Murray said -- while sounding like he should have also been scratching his head -- in giving an update on Spezza's condition after yesterday's practice. "Everything is as we thought it was. It's just a matter of pain tolerance, and a little bit of inflammation. I would hope over the next couple of days he would notice a big improvement.

"I can't imagine he'd play (tonight)."

Staal scored his NHL-leading 26th goal while his team's five-game winning streak was being snapped in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday. Ottawa was winning its second in row, a 6-2 victory over the New York Rangers, at the same time.

The Senators lead the Eastern Conference with 53 points (25-6-3) while the Hurricanes have accumulated 49 (23-9-3).

Two of Ottawa's six losses have come at the hands of Carolina, by scores of 3-2 in Raleigh Oct. 24 and 2-1 at the Corel Centre Nov. 15. The Senators won the last meeting by a 5-3 count Nov. 22 in North Carolina.

Spezza and Staal each have two goals in the three games.

"I'm slowly getting better ... it's still kind of day-by-day," said Spezza, who pulled the pectoral muscle during the first period of last week's game in Montreal. "It's definitely frustrating, any time you miss games it's frustrating. But the most important thing is we heal it properly and it doesn't become a reoccurring problem."

KELLY EARNING ICE TIME

Bryan Smolinski has stepped into Spezza's first-line spot, and went from playing what Murray described as "very adequately" Monday morning to "very well" after the Rangers game, in which he had two assists.

Also eating up available minutes has been rookie Chris Kelly, who, along with defenceman Andrej Meszaros, is emerging as the first-half surprises for the Senators this season.

Kelly has averaged a little more than 16 minutes of ice time since Spezza's been out, and Murray said he's not sure how he'll take it away from the former Binghamton Senator captain when his star returns.

"Chris Kelly has earned a lot of minutes now," said Murray. "His game is better, he's skating really well, he reads the play so well, with or without the puck. He's a real fine checker ... we knew that coming in ... but he's improved in that area, and now he's really deserving to play regular.

"It's amazing when you play with good players, it forces you to play better. I've always maintained that. I remember in Detroit, when we started bringing in better players, everybody got better. And that's what it looks like is happening here. When you get an opportunity to play with a top-end player, it's demanded that you get better. Chris has really thrived on that kind of opportunity to get ice time.

"But overall, (Mike Fisher) we know is a really hard-working, good player, Bryan has played very well, Chris Kelly is playing well .... even the fourth line, which I bitched about a little bit, talked about (Brian) McGrattan always looking to fight rather than just play ... I thought they gave me some real nice minutes (Monday) and we're very physical in an important part of the game."

The Senators will go with Dominik Hasek in goal tonight, while they should expect to see Martin Gerber tending the Carolina goal. Gerber stopped 80-of-83 shots in the first two meetings of these teams before the Senators got to him last time out.


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