MONTREAL - Finishing first would be nice, says Ottawa Senators coach and general manager Bryan Murray, but playing solid hockey going into the playoffs would be better.
The Senators, who started the season 15-2-0 and looked to have the NHL Northeast Division wrapped up in November, are now battling from behind to catch the Montreal Canadiens over the final two weeks of the regular season.
But while the Canadiens have been hot, the Senators have fought the kind of inconsistency underlined by their 5-4 loss to Toronto on Saturday, which came just as they looked to be getting back on track.
"We played OK against Toronto, but I think we gave up four two-on-ones," Murray said Monday as his team prepared to face the Canadiens at the Bell Centre. "You can't win in this league if you do that.
"We try to overhandle the puck and make something from nothing, and that doesn't happen often in this game at this time of the year. So I don't know where we are. We're just a good hockey team that needs to find another level if we're really going to be a contending team in the East."
Both face nothing but Northeast rivals the rest of the way, with Ottawa playing Buffalo and Boston twice each plus one game apiece against Montreal and Toronto. The Canadiens have two each against Buffalo and Toronto and that one last meeting with the Senators on April 1 in Ottawa.
The Sens finished second in the division to Buffalo last season despite a 105-point campaign, then went to the Stanley Cup final where they lost in five games to Anaheim.
"When you start the year your objective is to win the Stanley Cup and, in the process, win a division or the conference," added Murray. "I'd be wrong if I didn't say it was a good achievement.
"But in terms of our team right now, the most important thing is to play consistently well."
The Senators were dogged all season by coaching and goaltending trouble, particularly disciplinary problems with goalie Ray Emery, and took bold steps to resolve both last month.
First, they sent defenceman Joe Corvo and young forward Patrick Eaves to Carolina for scoring winger Cory Stillman and blue-liner Mike Commodore, then acquired veteran checker Martin Lapointe from Chicago.
In between, Murray fired coach John Paddock and moved back behind the bench, where he was so effective in running the team last season.
Results after that have been mixed.
Going into Monday's games, Ottawa was 5-5-1 under Murray and 7-9-3 since the Feb. 11 trade with Carolina. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes were 14-3-1 with Corvo and Eaves in their lineup, including a 5-1 win over the Sens last week in which Corvo had a hat trick. And the Canes got hot despite losing top centre Rod Brind'Amour to injury.
Murray said the moves will make Ottawa a better team in the playoffs.
Stillman, who won Stanley Cups with Tampa Bay in 2004 and Carolina in 2006, is expected to boost offence from the second line centred by Mike Fisher on a team overly dependent on production from the Jason Spezza-Daniel Alfredsson-Dany Heatley trio. Stillman also took Corvo's power-play spot on the point.
Commodore and Lapointe make the Senators a more experienced and more physical club.
"They wanted a defenceman and I wanted a veteran guy," Murray said of the deal. "It had a lot to do with how we were playing at the time.
"If we were going better, I might not have done it. What it does for me is it clears up some money with Joe's contract, which runs two more years, and allows me to do things this summer. And it brings a veteran guy who has won Cups and will bring a lot to the table."
Stillman, who can be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, had 16 points in 19 games and was minus-5 after the trade, while Corvo had 15 points and was plus-7.
"At that time, I was coming to the team that was No. 1 in the Eastern Conference," said Stillman, who waived a no-trade clause to let the deal happen. "My goal now is that I want to win.
"Once you've had the taste of winning, you want to get back there as soon as you can. Obviously, they (Carolina) have picked up their game, but at the time, this team was No. 1 and we can still be No. 1. We just have to play as a team."
Lapointe, who won two Stanley Cups with Detroit in the 1990s, was delighted by the move. The rebuilding Blackhawks are at least a year away from contending.
"It's great to get the opportunity to play again," he said. "In Chicago, it was five or six minutes per game playing with young players.
"There's a lot of talent on this team, but one thing we have to do is play a simpler game - be more disciplined and cut down on turnovers. We try to do too much and it comes back and bites us. If we can do that, it's a hell of a team."