Sabres step into Ottawa's path

DON BRENNAN -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:24 AM ET

BUFFALO -- The way the Senators are going, a visit to the nearby Six Flags at Darien Lake might have been appropriate yesterday.

Since the new calendar was put up on the wall, they've been on quite the roller-coaster ride of ups and downs.

After gunning it out of the gate with a 19-3 mark that left a city talking Stanley Cup, the Senators are a very pedestrian-like 8-6-1 in 2006. In those 15 games, they have outscored their opponents by a 54-44 count, but that includes the lumps they've left on Phoenix (7-2), Minnesota (6-1), Toronto (7-0) and Thursday's come-from-behind 7-2 pounding on the poor Pittsburgh Penguins.

WORTHY OPPONENT

Tonight, in their most worthy opponent since they faced the Carolina Hurricanes at home Dec. 28, they go up against the Sabres at what should be a hopping HSBC Arena. Not since a Dec. 22, 4-3 loss in Philadelphia have they played a road game against a team as good as 33-15-3 Buffalo.

"Almost the whole year we've been first in the conference, and our goal is to get back to first again," said Dominik Hasek, a longtime Sabre who will be making his first regular-season start in Buffalo as a Senator. "This is a big game for us.

"Every team struggles, but we've lost some we shouldn't have lost. If you want to be in first, playing .500 isn't good enough, and since Christmas we've been about .500. We need to get better."

Ottawa's hold on first place in its division will loosen noticeably with a loss to the Sabres tonight.

While they trailed the Eastern Conference pace-setting Hurricanes by four points (with two games in hand) after Carolina lost 3-0 to New Jersey last night, the Senators are just five points ahead of Buffalo in a wrestle for the Northeast Division crown. Both teams have played 51 games.

3-0 VS. BUFFALO

The Senators have manhandled the Sabres this season, whipping them 10-4 here and by scores of 5-0 and 6-1 in Ottawa, but the last time the teams met was Nov. 12.

The Sabres have improved dramatically since then.

"We've lost 15 games, and five to two teams ... go figure that," said Buffalo defenceman and former 67's star Brian Campbell, referring to the three defeats at the hands of Ottawa and two more to Florida.

Like the Senators, the Sabres are a fine skating team that has benefitted from the crackdown on hooking and holding in the NHL. Asked if they would try and keep step for step with Ottawa tonight, Campbell shook his head.

"We did that before and it didn't work," he said. "We have a good skating club, but our game plan isn't to run and gun. We have to take care of our own end."

The Senators, meanwhile, have to get back to the proper mind set.

While they've had some bumps and bruises to deal with, there's also been the distraction of Olympic selections to deal with in the past month and a half.

Eight Ottawa players will represent their country in Italy.

"We've had some injuries, we went into a slump and we've played some teams that are more desperate than us in some cases," said captain Daniel Alfredsson, who scored twice Thursday to bring his total to 34 -- just one back of league co-leaders Simon Gagne and Ilya Kovalchuk.

Coach Bryan Murray says playing the Sabres should provide a spark.

"I'm hoping guys will look at the standings, see that Buffalo wins every night, almost, and realize that we need to meet their skill level and energy to win," said Murray. "I hope both teams come out with lots of intensity and respect for each other."

Chris Neil believes the Senators will get back to the level they were at, and he points to an intangible as a reason why.

"We've got a room full of winners here," said Neil. "I've never seen a group that gets along so good. We have the chemistry and I guarantee we'll be neck and neck with Carolina to see who comes out on top."

don.brennan@ott.sunpub.com


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