|Defenceman Sergei Gonchar, who sat out Saturday's game in Buffalo after taking a puck to the head in warmups, is expected to rejoin the Senators lineup tonight against the Devils at Scotiabank Place (Getty Images).
At the season's outlet, it wasn't likely a game the Ottawa Senators had circled on their calendars in any colour of ink.
But let's just say tonight's matchup with the New Jersey Devils at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200) is more than just an opportunity to ring in the new year with a victory. Perhaps much, much more in the grand scheme of things.
The Senators (19-5-5) and Devils (21-15-1) are currently dead even in the Eastern Conference standings with 43 points, though New Jersey — which owns two games in hand — officially stands sixth and Ottawa holds down eighth, with the Winnipeg Jets (also 43 points) right in between. And lurking right behind are the surging Washington Capitals (42) and Toronto Maple Leafs (41), with the Buffalo Sabres (38) and Tampa Bay Lightning (37) within striking distance.
In other words, there's a lot on the line for Ottawa tonight. Especially given the fact that, after they play host to the Bolts on Thursday (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200), the Senators finish out the first month of 2012 with 10 of their next 12 games on the road.
"It's going to be a tough month, so it would be nice to get the wins here at home," centre Jason Spezza
said following the Senators' pre-game skate earlier today. "It's going to be tough to win games on the road and to play real good hockey on the road consistently is tough.
"So to get a win at home (tonight) would be a good start for us, and we'll try to steal as many points as we can on the road to keep ourselves in a good spot, because we have a good schedule down the stretch."
Captain Daniel Alfredsson
, for one, believes the Senators are about to embark upon what could be a season-deciding stretch for a team that many predicted would be closer to winning the first overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft than a post-season berth. But with each win — Ottawa is 5-1-1 in its last seven — this group keeps growing in confidence.
"We've felt from the first day of camp that if we worked together, then we have a chance of achieving things that maybe people don't think we can," said Alfredsson, whose 400th career National Hockey League goal capped a Senators rally from a 3-0 deficit against the Calgary Flames on Friday night. "That's been in our head all along and we keep pushing ourselves to get better.
"We know it's going to get harder and harder. We're really satisfied with where we are right now, but we (also) know there's a long way to go and probably, the next four weeks are going to determine how we end up."
The Devils are on a roll themselves heading into tonight's game, having won seven of their last nine.
"They're playing very well," said Senators head coach Paul MacLean. "They've got pretty good depth up front and the guy in net (Martin Brodeur) still stops the puck, too. They're going to be a challenge ... We've played well our last two games and test for us is, can we do it again?"
Added Alfredsson: "We know the Devils are a dangerous team. They play solid defensively and their special teams are really good. They're not going to give you anything easy. If we play good in the neutral zone, I think we can match them. It's two pretty hot teams that are going at it."Around the boards
Defenceman Sergei Gonchar
, who was held out of Saturday's game against the Sabres after taking an errant puck in the head during warmups, appears good to go for tonight. "I took the morning skate and everything is good so far, so if it doesn't get any worse, I'll be playing," said Gonchar. "I didn't see it coming. That's the weird thing. You're skating out there and you're not expecting anything, and then the puck hits you in the head. It's just one of those things that can happen to anybody" ... With Gonchar likely in, Matt Carkner
will be tonight's healthy scratch on the blue line ... Craig Anderson
(17-12-3, 3.23 GAA) makes the start in goal for Ottawa ... Fewer than 200 tickets remain for tonight's game ... The Senators are averaging 19,091 fans, including 11 sellouts, through 20 home games.