The buzz is already beginning to build for what should be – so far, at least – the game of the year in the National Hockey League.
But the Ottawa Senators have a not-so-small piece of business to take care of first before setting their sights firmly on Saturday’s big showdown with the Detroit Red Wings at Scotiabank Place. It’ll be the only meeting of the season between the NHL’s two conference leaders and some are already billing it as a potential Stanley Cup final preview.
First things first, though. There’s the matter of Thursday’s visit by the Buffalo Sabres to Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., A-Channel, Team 1200) for the Senators to consider. And even though the Sabres are stuck in the seven-game losing skid, nobody in the Ottawa dressing room is daring to look past their Northeast Division rivals.
“It’s the Buffalo Sabres. We’ve had a lot of respect for them over the years,” Senators head coach John Paddock said following the team’s workout Wednesday morning at Scotiabank Place. “I’m a bit surprised by their lack of success right now, but I think they’re a real good team. It’s easy to respect them because there’s been a lot of games played with them that meant a lot in the last two or three years.”
Indeed, the two teams have squared off in the Stanley Cup playoffs the last two seasons. Buffalo prevailed two years ago in the second round; the Senators turned the tables in 2007 in the Eastern Conference final.
They’ve already met four times this season, with Ottawa winning three of them.
“Buffalo brings out the best in us,” said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson
, who doesn’t doubt his team will be fired up to face the Sabres one more time. “They play pressure hockey and you’ve got to be ready to play.
“We know it’s a big game Saturday (against Detroit) but at the same time, this is a divisional game that we really want to win.”
Senators goaltender Martin Gerber (19-6-1), who’ll make his 27th start of the season Thursday, also knows how important it is to be ready for the Sabres from the opening whistle.
“You can’t be dreaming out there,” he said. “You have to really respect them. If you don’t pay attention, it’s not going to be good. That’s the way it is now all over the league.
“We’ve got to be prepared and ready (for the Sabres). It’s never been an easy game when we’ve played them. They’ve been struggling, but they can do damage if you don’t pay attention to them. So we have to be well prepared.”
The Sabres, meanwhile, will need to keep an eye on Senators forward Dany Heatley, who’s burned them for three goals and seven points in the four previous games between the teams this season.
“They’re an easy team to get up for,” said Heatley. “I like the challenge of shooting on Ryan Miller. He’s a great goaltender.
“I think it just boils down to how many times we’ve played them over the years. You’ve got two great buildings where everybody’s really into it, and it’s usually a packed house every time. I think that’s part of the reason why I get excited (to face) them.”
The Senators might have to do without centre Mike Fisher on Thursday night. He missed practice Wednesday because of illness, and Paddock said he’s assuming it’s the same flu bug that hit Randy Robitaille, Dean McAmmond and Joe Corvo over the past week or so.
“I think you have to put a question mark on (Fisher’s availability), based on how the other guys reacted,” said Paddock. “But I’m certainly hopeful he’s going to play. (Thursday) morning will be the gauge on it.”
Meanwhile, forward Patrick Eaves’ return appears imminent. Paddock said there’s a “good chance” that Eaves, who’s missed 21 games because of a separated shoulder, could suit up against the Red Wings or Sunday vs. the New York Islanders.
Fewer than 250 tickets remain for Thursday’s game, with less than 50 available for Saturday’s matchup with the Red Wings.Hamel, Nycholat named AHL all-stars
Binghamton Senators defenceman Lawrence Nycholat has been named to the Canadian team that will face PlanetUSA in the annual American Hockey League All-Star Classic, to be played Jan. 28 at Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghamton, N.Y. B-Sens forward Denis Hamel was earlier selected to captain the Canadian team. Nycholat earned a starting spot on the blue line via online balloting at theahl.com.