The Ottawa Senators' once-commanding lead in the Northeast Division is now down to the slimmest of margins.
The Eastern Conference-leading Senators look to avoid falling out of first place Thursday when they host the Florida Panthers, who are coming off the most lopsided win in franchise history.
Ottawa (32-18-4) lost 4-3 to Montreal on Tuesday, allowing the Canadiens to pull within one point of the Senators, who also sit atop the conference with 68 points. Montreal, which hosts lowly Toronto on Thursday, visits Ottawa on Saturday.
On Jan. 12, the Senators defeated league-leading Detroit 3-2 to take a 10-point lead over the Canadiens, but Ottawa has lost eight of 11 since.
Injuries have been a major reason for the Senators' latest slump. All-Star forward Dany Heatley separated a shoulder in the win over the Red Wings and captain Daniel Alfredsson has missed the last three games because of a nagging hip injury.
"We're not playing our best, but we feel when we get everybody back in the lineup and we get the guys we have in the lineup playing with the confidence we had at the beginning of the year that we can be the elite team we were last year and at the start of this year," center Jason Spezza said. "We still feel we've got a really good hockey club."
Spezza scored his 20th goal of the season Tuesday, and has four goals and three assists in his last five games.
Martin Gerber made 22 saves against Montreal but lost his second straight start. Gerber has not faced the Panthers this season, despite a career 7-1-1 mark, 1.99 goals-against average and three shutouts against them.
|Florida Panthers right winger Richard Zednik tallied a hat-trick on Tuesday in Toronto. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)
Ray Emery, 0-4-0 with a 3.73 GAA in his last five games, has been in net for each matchup with Florida this season. He's 2-1-0 with a 3.36 GAA in those games, and 6-2-0 with a 3.06 GAA and one shutout in his career against the Panthers.
In the teams' last meeting Jan. 22, Florida defeated the Senators 5-3 to snap a six-game losing streak in the series. Ottawa has won 20 of the last 26 matchups and five of six at Scotiabank Place.
Florida (25-25-5) scored four third-period goals to defeat Toronto 8-0 on Tuesday, its third straight win.
"The coaches really stressed to keep going and not let them back into the game," said the Panthers' Brett McLean, who had a goal and four assists. "We've had a couple games this year where we have had leads in the second and third periods and we have let teams creep back in, so we really wanted to keep our foot on the gas pedal and we obviously did that."
The Panthers are in 12th place in the East, four points back of eighth-place Boston for the final playoff spot.
Richard Zednik scored three goals - all on the power play - on Tuesday for his first hat trick since Oct. 31, 2000. Zednik also had a goal in Saturday's 3-2 win over Tampa Bay after not scoring in his previous 20 games.
Olli Jokinen scored his 26th goal Tuesday, and has four goals and five assists in his last seven games. Jokinen has two goals and two assists against the Senators this season.
Tomas Vokoun stopped 24 shots against the Maple Leafs for his fourth shutout of the season. Vokoun has posted a 1.62 GAA in winning all three of his February starts after going 2-9-2 with a 3.21 GAA in his previous 13 games.
Vokoun has started each game against the Senators this season, posting a 4.25 GAA in those contests. He's 2-4-0 with a 3.45 GAA lifetime against Ottawa.