Centres of attention

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:36 AM ET

NEW YORK -- Is it going to be one step forward, then one step back for the Senators?

They'll find out after the morning skate today at Madison Square Garden if all systems are finally go for centre Antoine Vermette, but they'll also be checking on the health of centre Mike Comrie.

Following an optional skate yesterday at the Bell Sensplex, Vermette indicated he should be ready to suit up against the New York Rangers. But the Senators aren't sure if Comrie will play because of "upper body" soreness.

Comrie, who hopes to be in the lineup, was slammed into the boards in the third period of the Senators' 5-2 victory over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday. Centre Josh Hennessy wasn't sent back to Binghamton and could play if Comrie isn't ready.

"It's one of those things where you've got to see how it is day-to-day," said Comrie, who was acquired from the Coyotes in a trade last week. "If it feels good, that's a positive. My upper body is a little sore, but I think at this time everybody is a little sore and I'm not sure anybody is really 100% out there. You've got to battle through it."

The good news is that Vermette is on the verge of a return from a hip injury he suffered Jan. 1 against the Atlanta Thrashers. He's missed the last five games.

"I feel pretty good," said Vermette. "It was a good step forward. I'm going to see how I'm going to react and then make a decision (today)."

If Vermette is ready to step in, coach Bryan Murray will have to do some line juggling. It would make sense for Vermette to slide in between Christoph Schubert and Patrick Eaves on the fourth line, but Dean McAmmond has played well and is contributing with the extra ice time.

Vermette isn't sure where he is going to go, either.

"That's a good question," said Vermette with a smile. "I don't know if the guys even need me."

A BIG CHALLENGE: Ottawa Ds Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips will draw the job of shutting down the Rangers' top line of Martin Straka, Michael Nylander and Jaromir Jagr. Murray has been pleased with the way Volchenkov has stepped up and that's why he's getting the job in the key pairing. "He's been a physical presence. The role he's been given has allowed him to develop more," said Murray. "There's no question he's playing as one of our top defencemen. He's a real force. I watch him, in games, get offensive chances. His game has improved because of opportunity. He's a guy who hits you and hits you hard ... His responsibility in his own end has really improved."

AROUND THE BOARDS: Rangers coach Tom Renney was fuming after a 5-3 loss to the Isles on Tuesday at the Garden. He let the players have it behind closed doors and then called them out in his post-game press conference. "They have no spell over us," said Renney. "We were brutal. It's us. We're awful against these guys. We have no concept of camaraderie. We have no concept of team play. We have no concept of circling the wagons to go play these guys intelligently. We beat ourselves." The loss came despite a three-point effort by Jagr. "I'm really not happy," said Renney. "I'm really (ticked) off with these guys." ... Philly F Ben Eager wasn't suspended for spearing Ottawa tough guy Brian McGrattan in the chest with his stick Sunday. But Eager did have to dip into his pocket and pay a $2,500 fine.

ICEDOGS TO FALLS? A Niagara Falls Review report yesterday indicated Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is ready to sell the Mississauga Ice Dogs to a local group headed by entrepreneur Tom Bitove. The sale is conditional upon city council approving a proposal to build a new 5,500-seat arena in Niagara Falls.


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