Suffering through a woeful first half of the season, the Ottawa Senators have been desperate for any kind of spark to get them out of the Northeast Division basement.
Rookie goaltender Brian Elliott is looking like he could be just what they need.
Elliott will try to win his third straight start - and give the Senators their first three-game winning streak this season - when the surging Montreal Canadiens visit Scotiabank Place on Saturday night.
Last season Ottawa was the Eastern Conference’s best team in the first half of the season, starting 29-10-4 and looking primed to make a return trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
But a second-half collapse set the table for a first-round playoff exit, and the Senators (15-21-6) have never recovered halfway through the 2008-09 season. Ottawa has yet to string together three consecutive wins, and after scoring the second-most goals in the NHL a year ago, has scored the fewest in the league so far this season.
Goaltending has been an issue as well. Veteran Martin Gerber (4-9-1, 2.86 goals-against average) was sent to the AHL for conditioning on Thursday, and Alex Auld has gone 0-5-2 with a 4.38 GAA in his last seven starts.
That’s opened the door for Elliott, and the goaltender who led Wisconsin to the 2006 NCAA championship has looked sharp. He’s 2-1-0 with a 1.69 GAA thus far, and has won his last two starts, including a 29-save effort in a 3-2 win at Atlanta on Wednesday.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” said Elliott, a ninth-round draft pick from 2003. “This is my goal and dream, to play at this level. When you get a shot like this, it doesn’t happen this often. You have to make the most of it.”
What the Senators need in front of Elliott is offense outside of the first unit of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza. Those three have combined for 47 of Ottawa’s 100 goals, and no other Senator has more than six.
Those three have combined for just a goal and an assist in two losses - one in a shootout - to the Canadiens (26-11-6) this season. In 21 combined games versus Montreal last season, the Senators’ top line totaled 17 goals - eight by Spezza - and 25 assists.
Elliott will be in for a challenge on Saturday against the Canadiens, who lead Ottawa by 22 points in the East standings.
Montreal has scored 25 goals while winning five of its last six games. The team’s second line of Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and center Robert Lang has led the way, combining for 13 goals and 12 assists over that stretch.
Lang assisted on Andrei Kostitsyn’s power-play goal to give the Canadiens a 2-1 second-period lead against Nashville on Thursday, then set up Andrei Markov’s goal in the third, the eventual game-winner in a 3-2 victory.
Lang was held without a point for the first time in five games in Montreal’s 3-1 loss at Boston on Tuesday.
“Every time you’re able to bounce back after a loss it’s a good two points,” said Lang, who has two assists against Ottawa this season.
Montreal is hoping to get goaltender Carey Price back soon from a lower-body injury that’s sidelined him for the first half of January, but that probably won’t happen until after the All-Star break. Backup Jaroslav Halak has started the Canadiens’ last seven games, posting a 3.27 GAA despite picking up five wins.
Halak gave up four goals in a 5-2 loss at Ottawa on March 30, his only career start against the Senators.