These Sens have come a long way

BRUCE GARRIOCH, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

OTTAWA — The Senators are all smiles these days.

And rightfully so.

Hitting the three-quarter pole of the season Tuesday with a 3-2 victory over the Calgary Flames, the Senators are pleased with their progress in the last month. With the Olympic break just around the corner, they want to finish this stretch strong.

The Senators can take another shot at top spot in the Northeast by beating the Washington Capitals — for a seventh straight victory at Scotiabank Place — and getting a regulation-time loss by the Buffalo Sabres in Carolina.

“I don’t know a lot of other people thought we would be where we are right now,” said Senators coach Cory Clouston, who gave most of his players Wednesday off. “I have a lot of confidence in our team. We know if we work hard, and play the way we’re supposed to play, we’re a pretty good hockey club. If we don’t, we know we’re an average team.

“We’ve had a lot of injuries and we’ve had a lot of key injuries. We’ve had guys respond very well when they’ve been put in certain situations and they’ve moved up into different roles and had some quality games. Now that we’ve got our guys back, we’ve got a pretty good team.”

The Senators will finish up the schedule before the two-week Olympic break on the road against the Detroit Red Wings Saturday and the New York Islanders Sunday.

After the Senators return to work March 2, they’ll spend much of their time back out on the road with only 7-of-19 remaining games at home.

They’ve already come a long way — from trailing the Sabres by 13 points a month ago to nibbing at their heels.

Senators goaltender Brian Elliott has won 10 of his last 11 starts and should be in the net vs. the Caps.

“I like us a lot right now. Not just because we’re in playoff contention and because we’ve done well lately, it’s the way we’ve won,” said defenceman Chris Phillips.

“We’re winning close games, hanging onto one-goal leads and we’re coming back from being down by goals. We’re basically playing playoff hockey.

“Nobody has handed us wins for just showing up. We’ve had to work for everything we’ve gotten. That’s all stuff that helps you learn how to win and you bring with you going into the post-season.”

Phillips said the players have bought into Clouston’s message.

“It’s been a constant reminder, day-after-day, about structure and how the coaching staff expects us to play,” said Phillips. “We know what we expect of ourselves ... The onus is on the players.

“We’ve seen our success and we’re all playing the same way. We play together as a five-man units out there.”

Cheechoo responds

Jonathan Cheechoo had one of his best games of the season Tuesday — a day after Clouston said he needed more from the winger. He responded with an assist on the winning goal, had two or three good opportunities and was skating hard. “I don’t think I challenged him. The question was: ‘Do we need more from him?’ The answer was: ‘Yes, we need more from him.’ That wasn’t a challenge, that was just stating facts,” said Clouston. “I thought he responded very well.”

This ’n’ that

Gordie Howe will be at Scotiabank Place, posing for photos and signing autographs for minor hockey players. He is attending the game as a guest of Helix Hearing Care ... Capitals G Semyon Varlamov, who returned from a stint in the AHL and missed nearly two months with a knee injury, is back with the club. He might be held out until after the Olympic break ... Don’t expect Clouston to make any changes from Tuesday.

Injuries

Capitals: LW Jason Chimera (groin), out; D John Erskine (undisclosed), out; Varlamov, out.

Senators: LW Nick Foligno (broken leg), out; D Erik Karlsson (shoulder) out.


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