It's game on for Sens

Rockland native Serge Payer, shown stretching before practice Monday, is a veteran duelling for a...

Rockland native Serge Payer, shown stretching before practice Monday, is a veteran duelling for a Senators roster spot. (Ottawa Sun/Blair Gable)

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:52 AM ET

You wouldn't think embarking on a pre-season schedule of nine games in 12 days would represent a break, huh?

But after the way Senators coach Bryan Murray has worked his boys over the first four days of training camp, the flurry of games will be a welcome relief to skating drills and off-ice workouts.

The busy exhibition schedule starts tonight for the Senators in Halifax against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who will have local hero Sidney Crosby in the lineup, but not their new wonder kid, Russian Evgeni Malkin.

"It's easier to play harder against guys you're not going to play with all year," said Senators centre Jason Spezza, who will be in the lineup tonight centring Dany Heatley and Patrick Eaves on the Senators' top line.

EMERY GETS START

Ray Emery, who will back up new starter Martin Gerber this year, will be in goal tonight and will split the duties with prospect Kelly Guard.

On the blue line, the marquee duo for tonight is Wade Redden with new partner Joe Corvo, the quick-skating free agent signed away from the Los Angeles Kings.

Prospects Nick Foligno, Cody Bass and Danny Bois will also get a chance to impress tonight.

There aren't really any jobs open on the Senators roster, with newcomers Alexei Kaigorodov (second-line centre) and Dean McAmmond (fourth-line winger) filling the spots left vacant by the departure of Bryan Smolinski and Martin Havlat up front. Those are basically their jobs to lose.

Corvo and Tom Preissing take over for the departed Zdeno Chara and Brian Pothier on the blue line.

That means the interesting things (as interesting as it gets in the pre-season) are the line combinations (can Eaves make it work with Heatley and Spezza? Can Kaigorodov fit in with captain Daniel Alfredsson?) and where the kids like Foligno and Bass are at in their development.

But don't tell that to Rockland native Serge Payer, who's back for a second tour of duty with the Senators after spending last season with the Florida Panthers.

He'll have to have a huge pre-season to wedge his way into the lineup, but he's used to having people tell him he's in tough.

"I came here believing this is my best opportunity to play in the NHL and I still believe that," said the 27-year-old, who played five games with the Senators in the 2003-04 season. "I've always been fighting for a job. I've learned to handle the pressure well. I believe I can be successful at this level -- I have (been successful)."

He played his first full NHL season last year with the Panthers, scoring two goals and adding four assists in 71 games.

The Senators have basically been divided into two teams in camp and they will alternate for the first couple of exhibition games. The second group, which features Gerber and a line of Alfredsson with Kaigorodov and Peter Schaefer, will take over when the Senators host the Toronto Maple Leafs tomorrow night at Scotiabank Place.

With just 47 players in camp and such a busy schedule, Murray said he doesn't plan on making any cuts until the Senators have played six pre-season games. That means bubble players like Payer and Denis Hamel will get a good chance to try and bump somebody and a guy like enforcer Brian McGrattan will get lots of ice time to get rolling for the season.

"It's a little much," said Murray of the schedule, "so you'll see different lineups. We'll alternate the veterans the best we can. We don't want to pile all the games on the older guys. It's a great opportunity for Payer and Hamel, and McGrattan might get to play in six games. That might be just what he needs."


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