They don’t come much bigger than this.
At least not this late in a National Hockey League regular season.
When the Ottawa Senators take to the ice against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre in Montreal on Thursday night (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200), they’ll have first place in the Northeast Division squarely in their sights.
An Ottawa victory would put the teams even in the standings with 87 points, but the Senators would hold the edge based on most wins. Tonight’s winner would also sit in the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference standings, behind either the Pittsburgh Penguins or New Jersey Devils, who face the Minnesota Wild this evening.
“We’re neck and neck with (Montreal) for the division and the conference (lead), and it’s going to add to the fact that it’s always an emotional game against them,” said Senators defenceman Wade Redden.
“It’s going to be an intense game. There’s obviously a lot on the line. We’re jockeying for top spot and both teams want it. They’ve been playing really well lately, so it’ll be a big challenge for us. We’re looking forward to going in there and having a good game.”
The Senators might get a big game-time boost tonight. Captain Daniel Alfredsson
took part in the full pre-game skate, and said afterward there’s a good possibility he could return to the lineup after missing the last five games while dealing with muscle spasms in his back.
However, it’ll be a game-time decision.
“It felt pretty good,” said Alfredsson. “I’m not going to make a decision until tonight, but obviously it’s good to be back on the ice skating with the guys.
“We’ll see how it feels tonight. If it doesn’t feel worse, I’ll probably play.”
If he gives himself the green light, Alfredsson would get the chance to play in a huge game in what he’s often called his favourite road building in the league.
“Except for at home for us, it’s the best atmosphere in the league,” he said. “You’re not going to have more adrenalin anywhere else. This is where you want to play.
“I don’t know if it (plays) any real factor in my decision but obviously, with the fans here, it’s a lot of fun to play.”
Tonight’s game marks the first of three between the teams before the end of the regular schedule. They meet again at the Bell Centre on May 24, then face off against each other one more time April 1 at Scotiabank Place.
While the Senators are 4-1-0 against the Habs this season, head coach/general manager Bryan Murray agreed these final three matchups will go a long way toward determining the Northeast champ – and the high playoff seeding that goes with it.
“There’s some other teams both of us have to contend with but certainly, when you’re even or close to even with a particular team, the matchups are four-point swings all the time,” he said.
“They have the edge on us now. It would be a big swing if they win tonight. It puts us a little bit in a hole.
“But certainly, with these three games, you have a chance to do what you (need) to do to be the top team in the division.”
Martin Gerber (26-13-3) makes his seventh straight start in goal for the Senators.