The Ottawa Senators have a chance to accomplish something Wednesday few people outside the team itself thought possible coming into training camp -- they can grab a share of the Northeast Division lead in March.
While technically the Senators would still be second to the Boston Bruins if they manage to beat the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre, Ottawa would be level on points with a victory.
"Obviously it would be a nice thing to accomplish and we really want to win this game," said Erik Karlsson, the runaway points leader among NHL defensemen who has 10 goals and 11 assists in his last 13 games. "It's not only to catch Boston, but just to keep winning games."
Ottawa's pace has slowed somewhat since losing goaltender Craig Anderson to a cut on his hand, going 4-3-1 in his absence. While Anderson has gotten back on the ice a couple of times, coach Paul MacLean says there is still no timetable for his return.
Still, the fact that the stretch is considered a dip speaks volumes about the performance of a team many picked to finish near the bottom of the conference standings, which is where their opponents Wednesday currently sit.
"We were in their exact position last year," Karlsson said of the Canadiens. "So we know how it feels and we know how we felt. We didn't want to lose any games."
Captain Daniel Alfredsson said the environment created by MacLean from day one was markedly different from last season under Cory Clouston. A heavy emphasis on skating and conditioning in training camp quickly carried over into the regular season, where the team understood how hard it needed to work in order to play MacLean's system.
"We're skating better than we have the last three or four years," Alfredsson said. "(MacLean) has done a great job of making guys accountable, but doing it in a way that's fun, too."
When told the change in atmosphere in the Senators dressing room is striking from last year, Alfredsson quipped, "Ya think?"
But he also conceded that the lack of expectations allowed this Senators team to find its identity without added pressure, something Alfredsson has experienced before on some of the powerhouse Ottawa teams he's played for over his brilliant career.
"It's a lot easier to live up to no expectations than big expectations," he said. "We just took the attitude that we'll prove everyone wrong."
It's safe to say the Senators have already done that, and should they be able to climb into a tie with Boston tonight it would only be another big accomplishment.
The Senators will be facing a Canadiens team that will be missing Tomas Kaberle and Scott Gomez.
Kaberle's wife Julia was expecting the couple's first child Wednesday and he's been excused from playing as a result. It will be the sixth member of the Canadiens to have a baby during this season after Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri (since traded to the Flames), Hal Gill (traded to Nashville), Travis Moen and Alexei Emelin.
Defenseman Frederic St-Denis was called up from Hamilton and is expected to dress against Ottawa.
Gomez is out with what is widely believed to be a concussion after he was hit from behind Monday by Buffalo's Tyler Myers -- a hit that earned the Sabres defenseman a three-game suspension. Coach Randy Cunneyworth would only concede that Gomez is out with an upper-body injury.
Here are the expected lines for the game:
Colin Greening - Jason Spezza - Milan Michalek
Rob Klinkhammer - Kyle Turris - Daniel Alfredsson
Nick Foligno - Jim O'Brien - Chris Neil
Kaspars Daugavins - Zack Smith - Erik Condra
Filip Kuba - Erik Karlsson
Jared Cowen - Sergei Gonchar
Chris Phillips - Matt Gilroy
Max Pacioretty - David Desharnais - Erik Cole
Rene Bourque - Tomas Plekanec - Ryan White
Blake Geoffrion - Lars Eller - Louis Leblanc
Brad Staubitz - Petteri Nokelainen
Josh Gorges - P.K. Subban
Andrei Markov - Alexei Emelin
Chris Campoli - Yannick Weber