Taking advantage of a opponent struggling to find the back of the net - while looking for its top line to rediscover its scoring touch - could help the Ottawa Senators regain sole possession of first place in the Northeast Division and the Eastern Conference lead.
The Senators welcome the Columbus Blue Jackets to Scotiabank Place on Thursday night for the first time in more than four years.
With 75 points, Ottawa (35-30-5) starts play tied with Montreal for first in the Northeast, and with the Canadiens and New Jersey atop the conference standings. Montreal hosts Pittsburgh on Thursday while the Devils are idle.
The Senators snapped a three-game losing streak (0-2-1) by handing Philadelphia its eighth straight loss on Tuesday, 3-2 in a shootout.
"That was huge for us," said Vermette who scored in regulation and in the shootout. "The standings are tight right now, we all know that, but we battled hard and we found a way to win."
|Andrej Meszaros and the Senators are currently the top team in the Eastern Conference. They will welcome the Columbus Blue Jackets to Scotiabank Place for the first time in more than four years tonight. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Fred Chartrand)
The Senators were 29-10-4 on Jan. 12, but have gone 6-10-1 since then. When scoring three goals or less in that span, Ottawa is 1-10-1.
Leading scorer Daniel Alfredsson has one assist in his last four games. That came after posting five goals and eight assists in three games from Jan. 24-Feb. 9, a run broken up by a four-game absence with a hip injury.
Alfredsson has points in all four career games against Columbus, recording a goal and four assists. But his linemates also have struggled recently.
Jason Spezza had a six-point game - three goals and three assists - in a win over Montreal on Feb. 9, but has only one goal and one assist in four games after that. Dany Heatley had a season-high four points (one goal, three assists) in the win over the Canadiens, but hasn't been on the scoresheet since then.
Ottawa's top line has combined for 86 goals and 124 assists in 2007-08.
The Blue Jackets (27-26-9) are trying to reach the postseason for the first time in franchise history, but also are having trouble scoring and winning. Since Jan. 29, Columbus is 2-6-3 and has been held to two goals or less in nine of those contests.
Nikolai Zherdev tallied his 24th goal on Tuesday in a 5-1 loss to Toronto. The Blue Jackets are in 12th place in the Western Conference, but only five points behind Vancouver for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Canucks play Nashville later on Thursday.
"We're really desperate right now," said Pascal Leclaire, who made 22 saves against the Maple Leafs. "We're not playing the way we want to play, and since the (All-Star) break, we haven't played the hockey we did before.
"We've got to get back to it, because there aren't a lot of games left, and other teams are playing well."
Leclaire won his only career start against the Senators, making 17 saves in less than 35 minutes of a 6-2 victory on Dec. 10, 2006. Rick Nash, who leads Columbus with 31 goals this season, had two in that contest.
Columbus will be making its first visit to Ottawa since a 5-2 loss on Nov. 13, 2003. The Senators have two wins and one tie all-time at home against the Blue Jackets.