Ottawa Senators need victories to ensure a post-season berth

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OTTAWA - The Ottawa Senators are once again turning to a win-and-you're-in policy to try and salvage their season.

Former coach John Paddock instituted that line of thinking to sort out the team's uneven goaltending performance before he was fired in February. And with the Senators in danger of a major collapse that could see them miss out on the playoffs, it now provides the best solution in order to salvage a berth in the post-season entering the final two games of the regular season.

"With everybody getting ready for playoffs, a couple of Game 7's and it starts tomorrow night," defenceman Chris Phillips said Wednesday before the Senators left for Toronto.

Ottawa will face the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre on Thursday. Ottawa has lost its last four meetings with the Leafs and another defeat will have the Senators sweating more than they already are.

"It's a big game and we need the two points. I don't think I have to say too much more than that," Phillips said. "It's still in our hands and if you're looking for any positives, that's certainly one we can use."

Ottawa (42-30-8) was tied for sixth place in the Eastern Conference with Boston at 92 points after the Bruins lost 3-2 to New Jersey in a shootout on Wednesday. Both teams are just one point better than the eight-place Philadelphia Flyers and two ahead of the ninth-place Washington Capitals.

The Bruins and Flyers could easily bump Ottawa into a fight for eighth with the Capitals holding the potential tiebreaker in head-to-head meetings.

Every point now counts to Ottawa, which could lock up a playoff spot regardless of the other teams' fortunes by taking three points from its final two games.

The Senators meet the Bruins at home on Friday night in their regular-season finale.

"Is anybody happy? No. Is everybody a little uptight and frustrated? Yes," said Ottawa GM and coach Bryan Murray. "I don't think anybody on our team, or maybe in the city, thought we'd be going down to the last game.

"It's been a constant struggle, really, since Christmas time, but we still thought we'd be in a little more comfortable position than this with two games to go. But we're not, so there's anxiousness."

The Senators and their fans are still having trouble believing it's come to this.

"We're all kind of baffled a little bit as to why we're in this situation," centre Jason Spezza said.

Ottawa's 13-1-0 start established an NHL mark for most points earned through the opening 14 games of the season and it wasn't long ago they held a sizeable advantage over the Montreal Canadiens for first place in the Eastern Conference.

Back on Jan. 12, the Senators beat the Detroit Red Wings at home in a battle of the top two teams in the league. Since then, Ottawa has won just 13 of 37 games. Its 17-21-4 record in the 2008 calendar year is the fourth-worst in the league.

The Senators were hoping for big things this season after making it to the Stanley Cup final last year.

"They let themselves off a little bit (after last year) and now to get it back is a little more difficult than maybe they even thought," Murray said.

Spezza said fatigue has been an issue.

"Through the midpoint of the season, we all got pretty tired," Spezza said.

"It started out being a little bit physically and mentally draining, then it moved on to other stuff."

The Senators, formerly the highest-scoring team in the league, have been shut out in their past two games, a problem they're chalking up to players trying to do too much.

"Overall, one guy is trying to do it and we haven't been supporting him," forward Antoine Vermette said. "We have to try to win together and as a group."

Murray shuffled his lines at Wednesday's skate. Left-winger Cory Stillman skated after missing the past two games and could play on the top line with Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, who didn't practise but is expected to play against the Leafs. Gerber will make his 15th straight start.

Earlier this week, Spezza used an expletive to dismiss a reporter's suggestion that the Senators don't work hard enough and on Wednesday, he brushed off talk of a lack of leadership or dressing-room discord being responsible for the team's plight.

Whatever is behind the collapse, the Senators, having lost six of their past eight games, find themselves in the very real position of being out of the playoff picture for the first time since 1996.

"It's an unfortunate situation that we've put ourselves in, now we have to find a way out," Spezza said.



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