The beasts of the East

DON BRENNAN -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:32 AM ET

NEW YORK -- Spinning toward apparent disaster, the Senators slammed the brakes on at the finish line last night.

Just in time, too, as they now meet the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs.

Ottawa won all four games against Tampa this season.

A 5-1 victory over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in the regular season finale last night ranked among their best all-around performances of 2005-06.

Not only did it secure Ottawa top spot in the Eastern Conference, but the win -- only the Senators' second in eight games -- snapped a two game losing streak and gave them some momentum heading into the playoffs, which begin Friday at Scotiabank Place.

"Most importantly, we got our game back in order," said coach Bryan Murray. "I thought we were outstanding."

"It's something we established that we wanted to get from the start of the season," winger Chris Neil said of the conference crown.

"It's a notch in our belt, but there are bigger notches to put in it still."

HEATLEY NETS 50TH

Dany Heatley scored his magical 50th goal of the season with 6:12 to play, becoming the first Senator ever to reach the milestone.

"Just kept it interesting for you guys," Heatley joked about waiting until the game's final minutes to hit the big number. "I was trying my best to shoot the puck, as always, and of course it feels good to get it.

"But most importantly, as a team we played good all around. It hasn't been a very good couple of weeks, but it feels good to get it right before the playoffs."

Rookie Andrej Meszaros scored his 10th and Mike Fisher his 22nd -- a shorthanded effort that ranks among the prettiest Ottawa goals this season -- to break open a 2-1 game in the third.

"I just tried to cut back, and the goalie kind of bit," Fisher said of the goal, what Murray referred to as "star quality."

"We were playing hard in the third and that gave us more momentum. It felt really good to get that goal and take everything away from them, kinda take them out of the game."

About playing Tampa, Murray said: "It's a good matchup, they play a skill game. But if we pay attention to detail and counter like we did tonight, we should be all right."

Earlier in the day, Murray railed about his team's power play, which had sputtered terribly in the previous four games (0-for-5, 1-9, 1-9, 1-6).

A few hours later, Daniel Alfredsson's 43rd of the season in the second period would prove to be the winner. It was on the power play, as Ottawa scored on two of four such man advantage opportunities.

The Senators were far more responsible than the Rangers in allowing odd-man rushes, but their lead was just 2-1 after 40 minutes due to the exceptional play of Henrik Lundqvist. The rookie goalie stopped both Marty Havlat and Alfredsson on second period breakaways.

With one game under his belt after losing more than four months to a shoulder injury, Havlat was flying from the outset. "He was outstanding," said Murray.

Less than 30 seconds into the game, he started a play in his own zone that ultimately saw him take a bomb from Zdeno Chara for a breakaway. Havlat's shot beat Lundqvist but hit the post. Havlat had another breakaway late in the second, but this time was stopped by Lundqvist's catching arm.

While the line of Havlat-Fisher-Peter Schaefer gave Ottawa its best push early, the first generally belonged to the Blueshirts, who led 13-6 on the shots clock.

Their best chance was a Petr Prucha backhand that tinged the crossbar. Moments after that, Ray Emery made a nice left pad stop off Prucha, and then a couple of ticks later Emery moved quickly to shut the door on a Jaromir Jagr wraparound. That later effort by Jagr generated the loudest cheer of the 13 New York shots in the opening period.

Straka scored New York's lone goal in the second.

"Beyond that, we didn't make many mistakes," said Murray.


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