The Ottawa Senators have almost certainly waited too long to make a postseason push in the Eastern Conference, but they’ve looked like a playoff team over the past two weeks.
If the Montreal Canadiens aren’t careful, they might be sitting home come playoff time, too.
The Canadiens will try to avoid a fourth consecutive loss Thursday night when they visit Scotiabank Place looking to stay perfect this season against the surging Senators.
Montreal (36-25-9) was 16-6-5 through two months but has been a .500 team since mid-December. The Canadiens have especially struggled over the past two months, going 9-14-3 to tie for the fewest points in the East since Jan. 20.
With three losing streaks of at least three games in that stretch, they fired coach Guy Carbonneau on March 9, but the losses haven’t stopped. General manager Bob Gainey took over for Carbonneau and guided Montreal to a 4-3 win over Edmonton on March 10, but the team went 0-1-2 to close a four-game homestand.
The finale came Tuesday night with the Canadiens facing the New York Rangers in a matchup of teams tied for sixth in the East. Montreal’s Andrei Markov scored the tying goal late in the third period and the game stayed tied through overtime, but Carey Price couldn’t stop any of the three shots he faced in the shootout, giving the Rangers a critical extra point while dropping the Canadiens to seventh.
“We had guys who were working hard,” center Maxim Lapierre said. “I know we didn’t get the two points, that’s not a good thing, but we did get one big point that keeps us in the race.”
The Senators (29-30-10), meanwhile, will be looking for their seventh victory in eight games on Thursday. They’ve played nearly as well as anyone in the league over the past five weeks, going 12-5-2 since Feb. 7.
Ottawa had its four-game winning streak snapped Thursday in a 5-3 loss at Boston but bounced back with two solid victories. The visiting Senators topped red-hot Pittsburgh 4-3 in a shootout on Saturday, then scored three power-play goals - two from defenseman Brendan Bell - in a 4-2 home win over Buffalo on Tuesday.
“Today we had a lot of power plays and we had a lot of opportunities to make good plays,” said defenseman Filip Kuba, who assisted on all three goals with the man advantage. “The puck was just going in for us today.”
The victory was Ottawa’s fifth straight at home. It hasn’t won six in a row in Canada’s capital city since Feb. 8-28, 2007.
The Senators’ top line of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson has picked it up offensively, combining for 27 points in its past seven games, but Brian Elliott has really carried the team. The rookie goaltender is 6-0-0 with a 2.12 goals-against average since March 5.
Elliott has made one start against the Canadiens, and like Ottawa’s other three games against them this season, it ended in a loss - 5-4 in a shootout at Scotiabank Place on Jan. 17. Both meetings in Ottawa resulted in Montreal shootout wins.
Heatley has five of the Senators’ nine goals against the Canadiens this season but Spezza and Alfredsson haven’t scored.
While Ottawa has a top line it relies on, Montreal isn’t sure where goals are going to come from. Andrei Kostitsyn leads the team with 23 goals, but he’s scored once in his last 11 games.
Kostitsyn has one goal against the Senators this season.