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James Murphy | correspondent
Jan 3, 2007, 12:00 PM EST

The Ottawa Senators head into Wednesday night’s game with the Northeast Division leading Sabres, as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race and in third place in the Northeast. They trail Buffalo by 17 points, but are smack in the middle of what promises to be a tight battle for the final five playoff spots in the East.

This may not be where the Ottawa players envisioned themselves heading into the season, but after a roller coaster ride in the first three months, they’re happy to be in the hunt.

“I think that last season we were basically Buffalo this year,” forward Dany Heatley said. “We pretty much jumped out to a huge lead and never looked back. Everything seemed so easy until the playoffs and I don’t think we expected it to be easy, but with all our talent we figured we’d be right in the mix and one of the better teams.”

But as Heatley and his teammates have found out, staying on top in this league is never easy and is more a combination of luck and hard work, than simply how talented your team is. While this hasn’t been an easy lesson to learn, Heatley believes his team will better for it come playoff time and that these tests are showing the true colors of a team many have labeled as one that “can’t win big games.”

“It’s weird because every time we seemed to have turned things around, something new happens and we’re back to square one again,” he said. “But each time we are tested, we seem to answer the bell. Just look at last week, when we lost (Jason) Spezza and then (Mike) Fisher in consecutive games, we still came up with three big wins, before the lost to Atlanta on Monday.

”We’re battling through and we haven’t shown any quit here. That’s impressed me a lot and I think it will be huge for us later on and in the playoffs.”

For the first month of the season, the Senators were pummeled by injuries, specifically on defense where they have been without their top defenseman Wade Redden for extended periods and were also missing newcomers Joe Corvo and Tom Preissing to begin the season. Redden has actually had two stints on the injury list and, according to Heatley, his presence was sorely missed in the team’s transition game.

“We miss him so much there and need him because he’s so good at that first pass out of the zone,” Heatley pointed out.

Redden returned last week and Preissing and Corvo returned in late October and early November and have become important parts of that transition game and the blue line corps.

“They’ve done a great job of fitting into our game plan and playing our system,” Heatley said.

As if having a depleted blue line wasn’t bad enough, the Senators had to play without captain Daniel Alfredsson for a five-game stint in December. Then as the New Year approached and the team seemed to be approaching full strength, Spezza and Fisher went down.

While Heatley admits that injuries have taken a toll on him and his teammates, he will not blame them for the team’s sub-par play at times and really believes that his team is becoming stronger and closer as a team.

“It’s been a weird and hard year thus far, that’s for sure, but we can play better still,” Heatley acknowledged. “I think we’re growing from this experience and getting tighter as a team. When guys have gone down, other guys have stepped up and that’s huge for a team.”

With only eight points separating the fourth and 10th-place teams in the Eastern Conference, chemistry and the ability to handle adversity will be pivotal for a team to earn a playoff spot and advance once they make it.

“We saw from the way Buffalo played us and everyone in the playoffs how important a team game is and we’re learning that right now and growing towards that type of team,” Heatley said.

Another key element down the stretch and in the playoffs will be goaltending and Ray Emery has emerged as the team’s go-to man between the pipes after a trying experience in the playoffs last season.

“’Rayzor’ has really proven himself this season and stole some games for us,” Heatley said. “You look at what he went through last spring in the playoffs and getting thrown into the fire and then how hard he worked in the off-season and you have to respect that. He’s taken advantage of his chances and we have tons of confidence in him.”

So while the Senators didn’t mind the smooth-sailing of last season, they’re embracing the rough waters they have encountered this season as a chance to be a battle-ready team in the final months of the season and in the playoffs shall they make it there.

“We will be a better team after this,” Heatley said. “We just need to keep battling.”

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