OTTAWA - For the past month the Ottawa Senators have been focusing on playing better hockey while keeping a close eye on the Eastern Conference playoff race.
And with one game remaining before the Olympic break, Ottawa finally has a chance to crack the top eight in the conference standings.
Ottawa (26-21-11) visits the Boston Bruins (36-16-4) on Saturday afternoon hopeful they'll have a hold on a playoff spot once the dust settles. Trouble is, the Senators are in a very tight race and winning still might not be enough.
Ottawa has 63 points heading into Friday's action, one behind Detroit for the final wildcard spot. But the Columbus Blue Jackets also have 63 points and more wins.
Columbus faces San Jose on Friday night and a Blue Jackets win will leave Ottawa outside the top eight regardless of Saturday's outcome in Boston. And there's also the matter of the Red Wings, who face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night.
So should either Detroit or Columbus win, nothing would change for Ottawa.
"It's a competitive group of teams that's fighting for that spot," said Ottawa defenceman Marc Methot. "It keeps you honest. I like it.
"It makes it competitive and it makes every game that much more important and those are easy games to get up for. It's going to be competitive and I bet it's going to get right down to the last week of the season."
Ottawa is in playoff contention thanks to posting a 9-3-4 mark so far in 2014. The Senators feel as long as they can remain competitive they should find themselves in good standing at season's end.
"We're playing better hockey, we're playing more consistent," said captain Jason Spezza. "A win in Boston would go a long way for us to keep moving in the right direction so it's a good opportunity for us to win another game and keep grabbing points."
Spezza finds himself on a nice roll, having recorded seven points (one goal, six assists) in his last five games.
While the Olympic break might not be ideal, the Senators feel they can take advantage of the practice time and return to action with confidence.
"I'm real proud of the little stretch of good hockey that we've been playing lately," said Methot. "If there's any way to go into the break it's playing properly and good structured hockey and as a team right now we're clicking.
"You just hope after a little bit of a layover with the break, so to speak, we'll come back just as strong. I'm sure we'll be putting the work in as soon as we're all back together."
While holding down a top-eight spot by the Olympic break would be satisfying, centre Zack Smith believes even being within reach is a positive sign.
"We've come a long way in the last month and a half or so," said Smith. "We've won some big games and there's a few that obviously we'd like to have back.
"They're all emotional games right now so it's nice to get points and stay in."
But with the teams Ottawa is chasing also winning, that makes the Senators' task that much more difficult.
"There's not much separation or breathing room it seems," said Smith. "Everything can change within a few hours so you have to wait and check scores to see what's going on."
But one benefit of a tight race is it makes every game important.
"Every night you're playing for something and you know the points are that much more important," said Smith. "It's exciting to.
"Win or lose you know it has a lot of influence on where your spot is and what position you're in."
Should Ottawa be unable to crack the top eight by the break, Smith said there will still be plenty of time for the team to make a move.
"When it comes down to it, there's still a lot of games left after the break," said Smith. "It's still a long season.
"If we don't win a game or say we lose two games in a row we're still not out of it by any means. It's good for motivation."
NOTES—Craig Anderson will start in goal against Boston . . . Forward Stephane DaCosta was re-assigned to the AHL's Binghamton Senators on Friday. In eight games, DaCosta had three goals and an assists . . . Defenceman Chris Phillips will miss his seventh straight game with a lower-body injury Saturday. Phillips skated on his own prior to practice . . . Defenceman Erik Karlsson was given a maintenance day Friday . . . Head coach Paul MacLean shuffled all of his lines at practice. But he said not much should be read into it as he was just having some fun . . . Most of the Senators said they'd be keeping a close eye on the Olympic action but also were looking forward to having a little down time.