Before anyone gets too carried away here, it should be noted that the Senators' recent tour of the Western Conference did not see them go anywhere near California.

No, it's not like their three games were in Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles.

They dominated but then suffered a meltdown against a Colorado Avalanche team that was coming off a loss to the not-so-mighty Calgary Flames. They might have not even escaped Denver with an overtime point had Patrick Roy woken his charges before the final TV timeout.

They snuck away from Nashville with a shootout victory over a Predators team that has very little scoring up front and is sorely missing its injured, world-class goalie.

And they beat a Minnesota team that was minus its best two forwards, one of its top defenceman and its No. 1 goalie.

The good news is the Senators are no longer following up decent performances with lousy ones. They seem to have shaken off the inconsistent label they wore through the first three months of the schedule.

"I'm always scared to death to say we've accomplished anything until everything is said and done, but we're certainly finding our game," coach Paul MacLean said after Wednesday's 3-0 whitewashing of the Wild. "We have the total group playing the way we need to play to be successful in the league. We just have to keep working at it and working on it, and getting harder and harder at doing it. If we do that it's reasonable for us to think we can be successful."

The biggest difference between the first two months and the last two months, MacLean noted, is that the Senators are finally playing some proper defence. Blueliners and forwards, both.

"We're getting better and better in our zone," said MacLean. "That's what young players can do for you. They can give you some headaches at the start, but if you can be patient and get through the growing pains, their improvement can be quick and radical."

Now comes a big and important stretch for the Senators, who play their next nine games within their own conference -- including five against teams that, as of Wednesday, were only three points away from them in the standings on either side.

As wild as the wildcard race is going to be, the Senators need to set their sites higher. They can and should now look at making the playoffs through the front door, as one of the top three in their division.