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Canadiens ready for another showdown with Senators

Lead Atlantic by one point again despite recent wins against Ottawa

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / Senior Managing Editor

MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens are right back where they were a week ago.

Last weekend, the Canadiens entered what was billed as a crucial home-and-home series with the Ottawa Senators leading them by one point for first place in the Atlantic Division, with Ottawa holding one game in hand. Many thought it could decide the division champion.

The Canadiens swept the two games, with the Senators picking up a point in a shootout loss in the first one in Ottawa on Saturday. But since then, the Canadiens have lost twice at home, 2-1 in overtime to the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday and 4-1 to the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday. On those nights, the Senators won 3-2 at the Boston Bruins and defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 in a shootout at home.

It all means the Canadiens enter a home game against the Senators on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV) with a one-point lead atop the Atlantic, and with Ottawa holding one game in hand.

"We like the way we played against Ottawa last time," Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty said after practice Friday. "Obviously the last two games haven't been perfect, but we know the areas we need to clean up and improve on, so hopefully we can show an even stronger effort than last weekend. We know they're going to, now it's up to us to do the same."

Video: MTL@EDM: Pacioretty buries go-ahead goal from circle

The big difference between last weekend and this one is the Senators are expected to have forward Mark Stone back after he missed seven games with a lower-body injury. Ottawa coach Guy Boucher referred to Stone as the Senators' best forward on numerous occasions a week before, and now they will have him available against the Canadiens.

The Senators will be without defenseman Marc Methot, who injured his finger Thursday and is expected to be out for weeks. But the addition of Stone, who has 50 points (22 goals, 28 assists) in 63 games, should be a game-changer for Ottawa.

"He's a good player, he's a guy that they rely on, so obviously they're going to get a boost getting him back in the lineup," Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher said. "He kind of balances out their lines, it allows them to do some different things both power play and 5-on-5. Certainly, he'll have an impact."

Video: MTL@OTT: Gallagher beats Anderson along the goal line

The Canadiens are looking for that same balance on their forward lines. It's something coach Claude Julien has been working on since replacing Michel Therrien on Feb. 14 but seems no closer to finding a solution.

After the loss to the Hurricanes, Julien was visibly disappointed with the Canadiens effort. He went to the drastic measure of moving No. 1 center Alex Galchenyuk to left wing against Carolina, and Galchenyuk responded by scoring the opening goal of the game off a setup from Andrew Shaw, who was moved to center for the first time all season.

But that was the Canadiens' only goal, and they barely generated any legitimate scoring chances the rest of the game.

"In a way I'd love to be able to have some set lines," Julien said following the game Thursday. "I think when you look at some of the lines, the way they've played, would you stick with them? That's where I'm at. That's my job. My job as a coach is to try and find the right combinations."

Video: CAR@MTL: Galchenyuk buries Shaw's feed

One day later, Julien did not touch any of his top three forward lines, choosing instead to continue the rotation he has instituted on his fourth line and third defense pair.

You can hardly blame him.

The Canadiens have eight games left in the regular season, and of the 16 teams in position to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs prior to games Friday, Montreal's lineup is in the biggest state of flux. How often does a contending team move its No. 1 center to the wing at this stage of the season?

Creating lineup stability is something Julien needs to do in relatively short order with the playoffs looming.

"What's important is how we rebound [Saturday]," Julien said. "We're not the only team that has lost two games in a row, one of them in overtime, so it's certainly not time to panic. There are teams in the past that had trouble at the end of the season and they arrived in the playoffs and everything changed right away."

All the lineup tinkering would be easier if the Canadiens had a comfortable lead on the Senators, but that's no longer the case.

"Obviously it's disappointing," Montreal forward Alexander Radulov said. "We've got to win. [Losing] the last two games at home, in front of our fans, you don't want to do that. It's a good thing we have a chance to play Ottawa and we'll try to win it."

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