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Weekend of separation for Canadiens, Senators

Montreal feeling good after sweeping home-and-home from suddenly struggling Ottawa

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / Senior Managing Editor

MONTREAL -- They were two games out of 82 on the schedule, but they were more important than that for the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators.

Only one of those teams is willing to accept that now.

The Canadiens and Senators entered a weekend home-and-home set separated by one point atop the Atlantic Division standings, with Ottawa trailing but also holding a game in hand. They exit separated by four points after the Canadiens won 4-3 in a shootout in Ottawa on Saturday and completed the sweep with a 4-1 win at home Sunday.

Video: OTT@MTL: Plekanec buries rebound to open the scoring

Suddenly, the Senators' game in hand is less meaningful and the Canadiens' hold on the division lead -- which they have had every day except one since Oct. 20 -- seems stronger than it has in weeks.

"It wasn't the end of the world one way or the other, but it was an important weekend," Montreal coach Claude Julien said. "Both teams are trying to, either us stay on top or them surpass us, and you never know down the road if we've got to meet again. So I think it was an important weekend…and I just thought we handled it well."

The Senators did not, at least not Sunday.

A day after a wildly entertaining and well-played game at Canadian Tire Centre, the Senators came out flat at Bell Centre, allowing the opening goal to Tomas Plekanec 28 seconds into the game, taking a penalty 19 seconds later, and after tying it later in the period, getting completely outplayed over the final 40 minutes.

It was Ottawa's fourth loss in a row (0-2-2) following a six-game winning streak that got them so close to taking over the division lead. Now, so close to the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there are things that need fixing when it seemed as recently as a week ago that the Senators were firing on all cylinders.

It doesn't get easier from here, with the Senators playing at the Boston Bruins on Tuesday, at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday and back at Montreal next Saturday to start a five-game road trip.

Video: OTT@MTL: Price sprawls across for a fantastic save

"We've got tough games coming up, we've got great opponents, and we have to keep moving forward and build on what we had success with in the past," Senators captain Erik Karlsson said. "We've got a great group of guys and we're going to figure this out. So there's no worries. It's obviously very upsetting to lose to Montreal two days in a row, but they played good. They showed they're a quality team and they executed really well on a back-to-back. We couldn't really do the same."

Ottawa coach Guy Boucher said before the game Sunday he felt his players were a bit nervous heading into the game Saturday because of the hype that surrounded the weekend. If that's the case, how would they handle the hype surrounding a playoff series?

That could be seen as a disconcerting sign for Senators fans, but the bright side would be that going through that this weekend could make managing the external pressure of the playoffs easier to manage for a team that has missed the postseason in two of the past three years and was knocked out in the first round by the Canadiens two years ago.

Video: OTT@MTL: Benn's one-timer finds twine off defenseman

Karlsson called the weekend a great learning experience on three or four occasions after the game Sunday.

"It was a lot of buildup for this weekend, mostly for the markets that we are in," he said. "It was getting a lot of publicity in both cities. These are fun games to play, even though we were on the losing side. I still think that we learned a great deal from it. We know they're a good team, they proved to us this weekend they're a good team. We play them one more time and we're going to keep moving forward and improving our game, and hopefully by next Saturday we have something new to throw at them."

The Canadiens, meanwhile, had a lot of good things to build on from the weekend. They got goals from Andrew Shaw, Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher, Plekanec, Jordie Benn, Paul Byron and Nathan Beaulieu in the two games after being concerned over the lack of secondary scoring behind the top line of Alex Galchenyuk, Alexander Radulov and Max Pacioretty.

Video: OTT@MTL: Byron converts on odd-man rush early in 3rd

Defenseman Alexei Emelin was reinserted into the lineup Sunday after being a healthy scratch Saturday and played his best game in weeks.

Now five weeks into Julien's second tenure as Canadiens coach, their play is showing clear signs of improvement at a perfect time, just before the playoffs.

"I like the direction that we're going," Julien said. "We're getting better all the time, we're being a little harder to play against, we're finding ways to win, we're showing character by coming from behind. There's a lot of good things happening.

Video: OTT@MTL: Beaulieu drills home a slap shot for PPG

"But the biggest key now with the amount of games left to play is not to be satisfied and to continue to want to improve as a team. We haven't peaked, we're not peaking yet because there's still lots of room for improvement."

The Senators can say the same thing, except in their case finding the willingness to improve is not a matter of being satisfied, it is a matter of urgency with the most important games of the season right around the corner.

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