Stuck in second place in recent weeks, the Ottawa Senators have had their sights set on taking over the top spot in the Northeast Division. If they're not careful, they could soon find the Boston Bruins catching them.
The Senators and Bruins will get together on Saturday in Boston for the first of two meetings that could have a major impact on playoff positioning during the season's final week.
Ottawa (42-28-8) led the division for most of the season, but a 6-8-2 stretch in their last 16 games, combined with a 10-3-1 run from Montreal, has the Canadiens in first place and the Senators fighting for playoff position in the tightly packed Eastern Conference.
Though they've lost the upper hand in the Northeast, a win over Boston (39-28-10) combined with a Washington loss to Florida on Saturday would guarantee Ottawa a spot in the playoffs for the 11th consecutive season.
"We just want to make it," Senators coach and general manager Bryan Murray told the team's official Web site. "That's all I'm really concerned about - getting in, being ready and when we get there, whoever we have to play, we'll play."
The Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers are holding down the final two postseason spots in the East, with the Capitals just two points back.
While Boston could realistically slide out of the playoff picture over the final week, it also has a strong chance to move up the standings. The Bruins have a game in hand on the Senators plus two head-to-head meetings - their season series ends Friday in Ottawa - to try to make up the four-point gap between the teams.
Boston improved to 3-1-2 in its last six on Thursday, beating Toronto 4-2 to sweep a home-and-home series. Seven different Bruins had goals as they outscored the Maple Leafs 10-4 in the two games.
"We have a lot of guys stepping up and that's what good teams do," said Glen Murray, who had a goal in each game. "I didn't think Toronto was going to go away and let us have it, but we need the wins more than them."
If Boston is to make up ground against Ottawa on Saturday, it will do so without points leader Marc Savard. Leading the Eastern Conference with 63 assists, Savard sat out both games against the Maple Leafs and will miss at least two more with a back injury.
Bruins winger Chuck Kobasew, who has 22 goals, fractured his tibia via a shot from teammate Zdeno Chara on Tuesday and will miss four-to-eight weeks.
While Boston completed a home-and-home sweep of a non-playoff team, the Senators couldn't do the same. Though they rallied from a 3-1 deficit on Tuesday to beat Buffalo 6-3, they came home Thursday and lost 4-3 in a shootout after giving up the tying goal with less than two minutes left in regulation.
"It's disappointing to lose like that," said center Mike Fisher, who had two goals. "We know we've got to overall be a little bit smarter and better in the defensive zone."
Ottawa only got one point from the NHL's top-scoring trio of Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley on Thursday, but the Senators' top line did major damage the last time it faced the Bruins. Though Alfredsson missed the game on March 11 with a back injury, Heatley had a hat trick and Spezza accounted for the other goal in Ottawa's 4-1 win.
The Senators have won four of six meetings with the Bruins this season.