It’s a big, four-point game for the Canadiens when they visit Ottawa tonight, hopeful of ending their five-game slide. The Senators sit in the East’s eighth spot, six points up on the Habs. A regulation win for Montreal shaves that to a more manageable four, although Washington, Winnipeg and Buffalo are still between them and the Sens. A regulation loss makes the gap eight points.
Ottawa has had a surprising first half and they’ve played some of their best hockey of the season recently, having gotten 9 of a possible 12 points in their last six games. They’ve defeated the Sabres twice, the Panthers and Penguins, plus losing in OT to Carolina. After dropping five of six to begin the season, they’ve gone 16-9-5 record in the 30 games since Oct. 20.
Plus, they made an important move to help themselves this month by trading with Phoneix for Kyle Turris, giving them a bona fide second line centre.
For those who have forgotten, Turris was drafted third overall in 2007 behind Patrick Kane and James van Riemsdyk. Top scorer on the star-laden Team Canada squad at the 2008 World Junior Tournament, he looked like the real deal, but needed to mature as a player, which he felt wasn’t happening in Phoenix. A restricted free agent last summer, Turris refused to sign by the start of the season and didn’t come to terms with the Coyotes until Nov. 22. After playing six games, GM Don Maloney accommodated his wish and Turris was dealt to Ottawa on Dec. 17.
He’s played three games since then, getting an assist in each; in the first two, he set up the game-winning goals. This is a fresh start for a talented player.
The Sens will also get Milan Michalek back in the lineup tonight. The top line winger was leading the NHL in goals when he collided with a teammate and suffered a concussion on Dec. 13, taking him from the lineup for the last five games. His 19 goals still leads the Sens and he remains among the league leaders (Rangers’ Marian Gaborik how has 22).
With Turris now in the lineup, coach Paul MacLean can keep his top three offensive threats — Michalek, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson — together on one line, with Turris between Bobby Butler and Nick Foligno on the second line. Peter Regin had been on that trio, but could be lost for the season with a shoulder injury. Butler, a player with a good scoring touch that has gone missing, will now get a shot in hopes that he can develop some chemistry with Turris.
But with rugged guys like Chris Neil and Zenon Konopka on the third and fourth lines, not to mention big rookie Colin Greening who has a bit of offensive talent as well, all four lines for Ottawa can pose a threat.
On the blue line, Erik Karlsson continues to enjoy a breakout season. His 33 points are the best among all NHL defencemen; his 29 assists are the second-most among all skaters. He’s had seven points in this last four games and 10 in his last 10.
Power play quarterback Sergei Gonchar had been producing at a steady pace (10 points in 13 games) until he went down with an upper body injury on Dec. 10 and missed four games. He hasn’t recorded any points in the three since his return.
In addition to Regin, Jesse Winchester is sidelined wiht a concussion and defenceman Chris Phillips won’t play as he’s got an undisclosed minor problem suffered in the Carolina game on Dec. 23. Brian Lee will take his spot on the third pairing.
Habs fans concerned about their team’s third period performances should note that the Senators are the most productive third period team in the NHL, having scored a league-high 51 goals. Of course, they’ve also surrendered 48, second most in the league.
Alfredsson (upon whom Mike Boone regularly bestows the cursed middle initial “F.”) has been very hot lately, with nine points in his last five games. He’s now at 399 goals for his career and with his parents in town from Sweden for the holidays, he has motivation to get 400 either tonight or against the Sabres at home on Friday. The Canadiens will be happy to postpone the celebration.
Here’s how the Sens should line up for tonight’s game.
Milan Michalek-Jason Spezza-Daniel Alfredsson
Nick Foligno-Kyle Turris-Bobby Butler
Colin Greening-Zack Smith-Chris Neil
Erik Condra-Zenon Konopka-Kaspars Daugavins
Jared Cowen-Erik Karlsson
Filip Kuba-Sergei Gonchar
Brian Lee-Matt Carkner