MONTREAL -- After leading the Atlantic Division for all but one day since Oct. 20, the Montreal Canadiens will be fighting to remain there this weekend when they face the Ottawa Senators in a home-and-home series that could decide who will finish first.
The Canadiens will play at the Senators on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV) and Ottawa will visit Montreal on Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET; SN, RDS, NHL.TV).
The Canadiens (39-23-8) enter the weekend with a one-point lead on the Senators (39-23-7), with Ottawa holding one game in hand a little more than three weeks before the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
[Related: Senators, Canadiens to play in NHL100 Classic]
"Your goal is always to finish as high as you can and first place is certainly a goal of ours right now, but it's not the end of the world if something happens and we're not there," Canadiens coach Claude Julien said. "The main thing in this new NHL is you've got to be in the playoffs. We've seen teams that have finished seventh or eighth and go all the way."
To understand just how important this weekend is to the Canadiens, Julien said Friday it is possible goaltender Carey Price could start both games. He has played on consecutive nights once all season, and that was only because he was pulled early in the second period of a 4-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 16. Price started the next night at the Washington Capitals and made 20 saves in a 2-1 Canadiens win.
Video: CHI@MTL: Price extends pad to rob Panik at goal line
Julien said Friday that it is preferable to avoid having a goalie play on consecutive nights, but that it happens on occasion in the playoffs.
No matter how much the Canadiens attempted to soften the importance of winning the division, the fact Price could possibly play both games is the real indicator of how seriously Montreal is taking the weekend.
"I would never treat a regular season situation like a back to back in the playoffs, but I'm not going to stand here and say this isn't an important weekend for both teams," Julien said. "I think it is. There's first place that's in play, you want to establish some sort of, not dominance, but hopefully some success against the team. So it's important for both teams."
The Canadiens are in a position that the Senators are familiar with, adding an interesting wrinkle to this weekend's games.
Ottawa coach Guy Boucher spent much of the first half of the season implementing his system and getting his players to buy in, something he has done to great success, but which took time.
Julien replaced Michel Therrien as Canadiens coach on Feb. 14 and is going through that same process while facing a team that has fully absorbed its new system and is running it smoothly.
"I don't think about it at all," Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty said about winning the division. "I think about trying to win each game as they come and let the rest take care of itself. You do find yourself watching box scores and doing the math in your head sometimes, but at the end of the day when you take a step back, just worry about your own game.
"Especially in the situation we're in, we're trying to improve our game under a new coach and get better every game and nail down certain areas of the game where we want to improve. So that's what we're focused on right now."
The Senators have gone 19-7-3 since Jan. 8 to close the gap with the Canadiens largely because they were ninth in the NHL in goals against entering play Friday after finishing 26th in that category last season.
"I think the biggest thing with Guy's game plan is his neutral zone stuff where he plays a 1-3-1," Julien said. "They're very aggressive and they don't give you much room in the neutral zone. [Thursday] night, if you look at Chicago, it wasn't easy for them to penetrate [in a 2-1 win at Ottawa]. Sometimes against teams like that you've got to be ready to chip, support, put pucks in, get in on the forecheck. It's not easy to get your speed in the neutral zone against that forecheck. I think that's frustrated some teams.
Video: MTL@EDM: Pacioretty buries go-ahead goal from circle
"He's done a good job. He's got guys believing. He's a very intense coach that pushes and pushes and pushes his players to be the best they can be. They've answered to that."
The Canadiens still haven't fully answered to Julien's changes, and this weekend will provide a perfect opportunity to show that they've done that.
"I think the most important thing is for us to be playing our best hockey going into the playoffs, regardless of where we are," Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher said. "I don't think it matters what you're playing for, you want to win every single game you're playing in. If we do that, we'll take care of the division.
"I don't care if we're playing a game like this where there's a lot on the line or playing ping pong with my buddies in the summer, I want to win. Certainly if we win the division it means we accomplished something, but at the same time going into the playoffs it means very little."
Perhaps, but the results this weekend matter a lot on many levels. For the Senators it's an opportunity to finish the job of reeling in the Canadiens and show to what extent Boucher's changes have made them better.
For the Canadiens, it's an opportunity to show they are on that same path.