MONTREAL - A shutout by Martin Gerber, two goals by Jason Spezza and the surprise return of Daniel Alfredsson has boosted the Ottawa Senators back to top spot in the Northeast Division.
Jason Spezza scored his 29th and 30th goals of the season and Gerber made 28 saves in a 3-0 victory over the rival Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night.
The Senators' third straight win caused the teams to switch positions in the Eastern Conference, with Ottawa (40-25-7) taking over second place while Montreal (39-24-9) dropped to fifth, although both have 87 points. New Jersey's shootout win over Minnesota gave it first place with 88 points, while Pittsburgh also has 87 points.
"They're all four-point games now," said Alfredsson, who returned after missing four games with a sore back. "We'll try to build on this streak we have, but it's so competitive, you don't know what's going to happen.
"You just have to give yourself a chance."
Antoine Vermette also scored for Ottawa, which is 5-1-0 against Montreal this season.
The Canadiens were coming off a 4-0 win over New Jersey, but didn't have much jump against Ottawa's disciplined checking.
"They played a good game - they did what they needed to do to keep us on the outside - but we didn't do what we needed to do to get through that," said Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau. "You have to work more against a team like that."
Few expected Alfredsson back so soon, but the Senators' captain wasn't going to miss this one - a battle for first in the division against Ottawa's closest geographic rival and against a team he has owned in his career. An assist gave Alfredsson 83 points in 62 career games against Montreal, which accounts for nearly 10 per cent of his 844 career points.
He skated for about 40 minutes Thursday morning and pronounced himself ready.
"I was confident after the morning skate," said Alfredsson. "It was fun to get back and even better to get the win."
Spezza said the team had no idea Alfredsson would be back, but added: "It was such a big game, he wanted to be part of it."
Between them, the Alfredsson-Spezza-Dany Heatley combination have Montreal in their back pocket.
Spezza has seven goals and seven assists this season and 40 points in 28 career games against the Canadiens. Heatley was held without a point, but has 10 points this season and 40 in 30 career games against Montreal.
Spezza made a deft move to tip Cory Stillman's point shot past Carey Price on a power play 12:21 into the game.
He struck again with the man advantage 27 seconds into the second frame when he batted a rebound off the end boards out of the air, off the back of Price and into the net from behind the goal-line. Video review showed his stick was just below the level of the crossbar.
"I knew it was a goal," said Spezza. "I whacked it out of the air off his back. I couldn't have done that if it was above the crossbar."
Vermette put the game away at 18:01 of the second when he hit the round of a Chris Kelly shot on the first bounce past Price.
Gerber, making his seventh straight start, got his second shutout of the season and ninth of his career. He was sharp on a good chance by Mark Streit, but otherwise wasn't tested often as his teammates played a strong checking game.
"We always had a guy back, so they had to make quick decisions and didn't get a lot of chances," said Gerber. "It was a team effort."
Coach Bryan Murray liked the fact that his team won the special teams battle, going 2-for-5 with the power play while holding Montreal's league-best power play to 0-for-4.
The Canadiens remain at home to face the New York Islanders on Saturday while the Senators play at Carolina on Sunday.
Notes: Ottawa's Chris Neil missed an 11th game with a right knee injury. Brian McGratton and Nick Foligno were scratched. ... Montreal sat Steve Begin (groin), Mathieu Dandenault, Mikhail Grabovski and Patrice Brisebois. ... A band from the Royal 22nd Regiment played the national anthem, while Brig. Gen. Christian Barabe and chief of defence staff Rick Hillier took part in a ceremonial faceoff.