OTTAWA - Mired in last place in the NHL's Northeast Division, the struggling Ottawa Senators are hoping a lengthy road trip will help turn their season around.
The world junior hockey championship takes over the Senators' Scotiabank Place home for the next two weeks, forcing Ottawa to hit the road for the next eight games, beginning Tuesday night in Philadelphia against the Flyers.
With the Senators well back of a playoff spot approaching the midway point of the season, this road trip could have a major impact on their hopes of making the post-season in April.
"It's going to be pretty pivotal on where we stand when we come out of this eight-game trip, so it's important to try and get it off to a good start," Senators centre Jason Spezza said Monday.
"We're playing some good teams in some tough cities to play in. We've got to be ready."
Following Tuesday's contest, the Senators will make a pit stop back in Ottawa for Christmas, then it's a trek through Western Canada for games against the Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers.
They return to Ottawa for New Year's, then it's back out for four more games in the east before they finally play host to another game on Jan. 10.
The Senators edged the Dallas Stars 5-4 in overtime on Saturday for their second win in seven games. Entering play Monday night, Ottawa sat in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, eight points behind the eight-place Carolina Hurricanes.
And the road has not been kind to the Senators. Ottawa has lost nine straight games away from home with its last road victory coming against the Florida Panthers on Oct. 30.
"We haven't had a great record on the road, so it's a huge stretch for us, obviously," said coach Craig Hartsburg. "It starts tomorrow against a real good team in a tough building to play. We've got to make sure our focus is on that work, that team part of it that we saw the other night against Dallas."
On the season, the Senators have a dismal 3-8-2 road record.
"It's the same stuff over and over," defenceman Brendan Bell said. "Craig keeps saying it - we're not prepared to play at the start of the game and we get behind the eight ball."
The once high-flying Senators' biggest concern is a lack of goals. Only the woeful Tampa Bay Lightning have managed fewer goals than Ottawa's 72, and no team has less than the 22 goals the Senators have scored in their 13 games on the road.
"It's tough to win games when you don't score," Spezza said.
Several players skipped Monday's practice, including captain Daniel Alfredsson, who left Saturday's game after being checked into the boards from behind by Dallas forward Jere Lehtinen. Left-winger Dany Heatley was absent with the flu and Filip Kuba (groin), Jesse Winchester (upper body) and Chris Neil (undisclosed) also missed out.
Hartsburg said Kuba, the team's top-scoring defenceman, won't travel to Philadelphia, but Alfredsson, Heatley and Neil will, although they may not play. Forward Ilya Zubov, who didn't play last Friday due to visa problems, was expected to make the trip.
The Senators' most recent struggles have intensified the pressure on the team from the fans and media, with Hartsburg even threatening to sit out Spezza if his play doesn't improve.
With trade speculation high after general manager Bryan Murray vowed to make changes last week, a getaway from Ottawa may help the team, too.
"I think it'd be good maybe just to get away and kind of come together as a team," centre Mike Fisher said. "Sometimes a good road trip will do that."
On the flip side for Ottawa, the Senators enjoy a stretch in late February-early March where they'll play eight straight at home. However, those games won't mean much if they've fallen too far back of the pack.
"This stretch of the schedule is always important and it's always important when you need wins," said goalie Alex Auld, who will start against the Flyers. "It'd obviously be great, if we got a lot of points. It's important for here, right now."