On a trip of a lifeline

BRUCE GARRIOCH, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:46 AM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- Eight should be enough to tell us where the Senators are ultimately headed.

After Ottawa finishes an eight-game, season-defining road trip -- which begins tonight in Philadelphia -- fans will pretty much know where their team stands.

While Senators owner Eugene Melnyk says the media will be calling it a miracle turnaround when his team vaults into the top four in the Eastern Conference by March, it's these next eight games that will determine what kind of miracles this team can perform.

After tonight's game against the Flyers, the Senators will get a two-day Christmas break before heading to Western Canada for games in Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton.

After returning home for New Year's, the Senators, who are being displaced by the world juniors, will hit the road for four more (Toronto, New Jersey, Buffalo and Boston).

In pursuit of a playoff spot or in pursuit of a lottery pick? It could go either way.

"We can either build on (Saturday's 5-4 OT win over Dallas) and move forward or be the opposite, which is going to dig us a huge hole," said Ottawa centre Mike Fisher. "We know the importance of these eight games. We have a great chance and good opportunity if we have a great road trip. If we have a good stretch we can be right in the thick of things again. It is huge."

While the Senators have been one of the NHL's better road teams over the last couple of seasons, it's been a huge struggle so far in 2008-09. Ottawa has lost nine straight (0-7-2) on the road, its last win away from home a 2-1 victory over the Panthers on Oct. 30 in Florida.

Better bring on that miracle turnaround.

"We don't have a great record on the road and this is a huge stretch for us," said Senators coach Craig Hartsburg. "It starts (tonight) against a real good team and a tough building to play in. We've got to make sure that focus is on that work and that team part we saw against Dallas."

Mirroring the Senators' road woes, has been their inability to score. They have 73 goals in 31 games. Only the Lightning, with 72 in 32 games, is worse.

So, Ottawa will be looking to build on the fact in scored five times in Saturday's win.

"It's been the same stuff over and over (on the road). It seems like we're not prepared to play and we get behind the 8-ball in a lot of games," said Senators defenceman Brendan Bell. "If we can start scoring a lot of goals like we did the other night, then that's going to go a long way.

"I don't know if we want to look at (the trip) as make or break. We know how important this is. We've struggled, but that win the other night can do some real good things for us. We'll take it one by one, but we know these next eight are very important for us."

Hartsburg isn't ready to concede it's make or break, either, because he doesn't want the Senators looking that far ahead.

"We just have to look at (tonight) and then we have the break over Christmas," said Hartsburg.

OFF THE GLASS

Ws Chris Neil and Jesse Winchester (upper body) didn't practise yesterday at the Bell Sensplex. Winchester didn't make the trip. Neil said he's fine. "I wouldn't miss it," said Neil with a toothy grin, maybe in anticipation of a bout with one of Philly's enforcers -- Riley Cote or Arron Asham ... Senators G Alex Auld will make his third start in seven games. He said after previously starting 11 straight games, he doesn't mind the fact that he's been sharing duties with G Martin Gerber. "You've still got to be as sharp as you can when you are playing," said Auld. "I don't find too much of a difference. It's given me an opportunity to do some things in practice and make sure I'm working on all the little things. I'm just looking forward to playing." ... The Senators have cleared up C Ilya Zubov's visa problems and he is expected to play against the Flyers. He couldn't make the club's last trip to New Jersey last Friday because his visa that allowed him to work in the U.S. had expired.


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