The Ottawa Senators are in the driver's seat to return to the postseason after a one-year absence. They hope the return of two key players will help them reach that goal.
The Sens are expected to have both goaltender Craig Anderson and forward Jason Spezza in the lineup this evening as they wrap their season series with the division-rival Montreal Canadiens.
Ottawa did not qualify for the playoffs last year after a 20-point drop off from the previous season saw it finish fifth in the division with 74 points. The Senators have already eclipsed that total with 84 on the season, three up on the eighth-seeded Capitals and only three back of the Bruins for the lead in the Northeast standings. Ottawa and Washington both have eight games remaining, while idle Boston has a game in hand.
The Senators did fail to make up ground on the sixth-place Devils on Tuesday, losing a 1-0 home decision to New Jersey. Ben Bishop made 33 saves in his seventh straight start as Ottawa lost its second straight in regulation and fourth in the past five overall (1-2-2).
Bishop gave up the game's only goal with 2:40 left in the second period on an Ilya Kovalchuk one-timer. Johan Hedberg then shut the door on the Sens by posting a 34-save shutout.
"It was a knuckle-puck," said Bishop. "Just a bad bounce. Their goalie played well."
Ottawa played without Spezza, who was unable to suit up for his 600th career game due to illness. He's expected to return this evening, as is Anderson from a four-week layoff due to a severed tendon in his right pinky.
Anderson hasn't played since Feb. 22, when he won his fourth straight decision with a 33-save effort versus the Capitals. However, he suffered his injury while preparing a meal later in the evening.
Bishop, Alex Auld and Robin Lehner have teamed to replace Anderson during his absence and Bishop will remain as the backup this evening.
"The guys have been playing really well, so I just want to get in there and continue to give the team a chance to win, just like the other goaltenders have done so far," said Anderson. "I just want to make sure that when I get in there, I'm making the saves I'm supposed to be making and doing everything as best as I can to help the team win."
Anderson's first test will come against the Canadiens, who sit last in the Eastern Conference with 69 points and suffered their third straight loss on Wednesday with a 3-0 defeat in Buffalo.
Carey Price gave up all three tallies on 31 shots for Montreal, which is 4-8-3 in its past 15, a span that began with five straight regulation losses from Feb. 19-28.
"We had a good start, despite the goal against," Canadiens head coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "We generated some offensive opportunities in the first (period) and took our foot off the pedal in the second. I thought we let them right back into the game and we had the momentum despite being down a goal. We just need to have a better start."
Montreal has been without forward Scott Gomez for four straight games due to a concussion, while defenseman Tomas Kaberle has sat out three in a row because of an upper-body injury.
These two clubs split a home-and-home series last week, with each team winning once as the host past regulation. Montreal is 3-0-2 in the five encounters this season.
Spezza (2 goals, 2 assists), Filip Kuba (1g, 3a) and Erik Karlsson (1g, 3a) are all pacing the Senators with four points versus the Canadiens this season, while Montreal has gotten a three goals and a helper each from Tomas Plekanec and Erik Cole in the season series.