Montreal has played 15 games, including a dozen against Western Conference teams, without playing a division game since Oct. 1, when they lost their home opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While the Toronto-Montreal rivalry is the oldest in NHL history, the Canadiens and Senators took their budding rivalry to a new level last spring when Ottawa won their first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series in five games in the first modern postseason encounter between the teams.
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said he welcomes the enhanced rivalry against a team that is a two-hour drive from Montreal.
"I think it's a good thing, especially we're two teams close to each other," Therrien said as the Canadiens held an optional skate at Canadian Tire Centre. "It was an intense series last year, but [Thursday] is an important game for both teams. It's a conference game, it's a division game and both teams need those two points, so I think the focus will be about playing a good solid game [Thursday]. I think you're going to see that from both teams."
The game Thursday will be the first time Montreal center Lars Eller has faced Ottawa since a devastating open-ice hit by Senators defenseman Eric Gryba in the series opener. Eller missed the rest of the series with a concussion and facial and dental fractures.
"I put it behind me," Eller said. "It happened last season and I've moved past that now."
Gryba, who served a two-game suspension for a hit to the head, also has turned the page.
"It's a new season," Gryba said. "I've moved on and it's a thing of the past for me."
And Therrien pretty much closed the door on the matter.
"That was a hit that got him a suspension and the League took care of it and we're satisfied with that, that the League took care of it last year in the playoffs," Therrien said. "But we're coming in [Thursday]. It's part of the rivalry but we're not going to change the past."
While the Canadiens didn't have their full roster on the ice for their morning skate, one of the players skating was forward Daniel Briere. It was the first time he skated with his teammates since he sustained a concussion during a game against the Nashville Predators on Oct. 19.
Briere said there's no timetable for him to return but said that he's happy to be skating again.
"I don't have a precise date yet," he told the team's website. "I've followed protocol and things have been getting better. I can do a little more every day. The hardest thing is just being patient. With the way I'm feeling I feel like I could play [Thursday] but I know that wouldn't be the best thing to do. We've seen in the past what happens when guys come back too soon and they get hit and then they're out for even longer. I'm following the doctors' orders; they know what's best for me but it's hard to be patient and wait."
The Senators are coming off a 4-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday. That ended a five-game winless skid that included a pair of shootout losses at home.
Ottawa coach Paul MacLean said he expects an exciting game.
"I think from my experience that if you're getting ready to play the Anaheim Ducks it's a little different than playing the Montreal Canadiens," MacLean said. "I mean I'll always say that every game is important in itself, but on its own there are different opponents that you don't need to work at it to get yourself ready to go.
"If you're playing the Western Conference teams you haven't played in a long time, and you're playing the team that you played in the playoffs and had a rugged playoff series with, you're more apt to take less to get ready for that game than it would be another opponent."
MacLean provided a number of entertaining sound bites and quotes in his post-game press conferences during the playoff series against Montreal. On Thursday he dismissed a question about whether he had spoken with Therrien since, or if there were any issues between the two coaches.
"I think the players played the playoff series, not Michel and I," MacLean said.
Craig Anderson is making encouraging progress in recovering from a sore neck. The Ottawa goalie has been out since Friday, when he was injured in a goalmouth collision with Dallas Stars rookie Valeri Nichushkin.
"He won't be backing up [Thursday] and he won't be playing, but it's a really good sign he was out early, stayed through the practice and stayed late for the extra work," MacLean said. "I haven't talked to him since, but I would take that as being very positive."
Here is what to expect for the Canadiens and Senators lineups:
Scratched: Greg Pateryn