Ottawa Senators hope to keep momentum vs. Leafs in up-and-down season

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For the Ottawa Senators, a Saturday night home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs isn’t so much about what was once a heated Battle of Ontario, it’s more about keeping momentum they established heading into the NHL all-star break.

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In a season that has been a tire fire at times, we’re past the mid-way point and the Senators finally look like they’re a hockey team that can win on any given night.

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Worth repeating: Finally.

The Senators haven’t played since a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 31, but they seemed energized and ready to go at Friday morning’s practice at Canadian Tire Centre. Heading into the break, the Senators had a 6-2-2 record in their last 10 games.

So maybe, just maybe, the team has turned a corner and can play up to the expectations of many heading into the season.

“We’re excited about a big (game) on Saturday,” Senators captain Brady Tkachuk said. “The (past couple of) practices are getting us ready for a tough task (against the Leafs).”

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With 35 games left in the regular season, the Senators have a mountain to climb before they can even think about playoffs — they’re 16 points out of one of the two Eastern Conference wild-card spots available. It seems unrealistic — the Senators would also have to climb past seven teams to get there — but it’s not impossible. And that’s the hope people around the team can cling to.

“There are a bunch of teams in the league that would like to be higher up in the standings and we’re obviously one of them,” defenceman Travis Hamonic said.

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“There aren’t a ton of games left. But there are still enough (games) for us to prove a lot of people wrong,” Tkachuk said. “We haven’t played as well as we all expected and hoped. We can’t do anything about (what’s already happened), it sucks. We can only focus on the present and future. You focus on the tasks here now and our task today was getting ready for (Saturday’s game).

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“There’s a lot of belief in this (dressing) room. We still believe in what we can do. We’re ready to pick up where we left off. The goal is (to finish) as high (in the standings) as possible. I don’t know if that’s playoffs, but we want to bring our best every day and continue to make progress. It hasn’t been the year we expected, that part is over. It’s about getting better and finishing strong. It’s a one-game-at-a-time thing. The last eight- or 10-game segment is what we expected all along.”

Jacques Martin has seen the ups and downs since he was named the Senators interim head coach following the firing of D.J. Smith in mid-December. He hopes his team’s recent success is a sign of good things to come. The focus isn’t on the standings, it can’t be. One game at a time.

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“I take more of a short-term approach instead of trying to look at the big picture,” he said. “When I came on, I felt there were certain areas that needed to be improved on to give us a chance to compete every night. In the last eight games, we’ve made good progress. That’s encouraging.”

Defenceman Jake Sanderson (lower-body injury) didn’t skate again Friday and won’t play vs. Toronto. He’ll likely be replaced in the lineup by Hamonic, who hasn’t played since getting injured (upper-body) in the Jan. 21 game vs. Philadelphia.

“I was a bit banged up before the break, so it was nice to get some rest and recharge the batteries,” Hamonic said. “I feel good and I’m ready to push.”

Hamonic believes the team is heading in the right direction.

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“It’s important to keep building off the small steps,” he said. “We’re really close. You want to be a team that competes game in and game out, year in and year out. We have guys that want to play hard for each other. We’re ready to keep pushing and make some noise down the stretch.”

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The Senators are coming off a particularly busy two months, where they played 15 games in each of December and January, so the all-star break was a good thing.

“It’s a long season,” Hamonic said. “We have a great group, but when you can get away for five or six days and take a mental break, it’s good. There are a lot of stresses that come with what we do. There’s the mental side and guys are banged up. When you get a week where you’re not putting your body on the line, it helps.”

“The break is always a great refresher,” Martin said. “It’s a long season, it was nice to get an opportunity to re-energize. Hopefully, we’ll continue where we left off, we had been playing some some good hockey. We’ve had a lot of energy, good intensity and good spirit in (Friday’s) practice.”

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