OTTAWA - With both teams in the hunt for an Eastern Conference playoff spot, the rivalry between the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs is starting to feel like the playoff battles of old.
Ottawa hosts Toronto at Scotiabank Place on Saturday night in a key matchup for both clubs.
The Senators sit fifth in the conference with 44 points, while the Maple Leafs are two points back in sixth. Ottawa does have one game in hand.
"We're very close in the standings and everyone's fighting to get into the playoffs," Senators centre Zack Smith said after practice Friday. "I think this is going to be one of the better games of the year, one of the more intense ones.
"I imagine it will be a pretty good game. These are easy ones to get up for."
The Senators are 3-1-0 on their current five-game homestand heading into Saturday and will be looking to improve on that record as they prepare to embark on a tricky seven-game roadtrip.
"I think we would be feeling pretty good going on the road with a few wins behind us," Senators centre Mika Zibanejad said. "It's going to a be a tough game against them, but it’s going to be a fun game."
With so many games in such a short time span Zibanejad says sometimes it's hard to get excited about an upcoming opponent.
But playing the Maple Leafs in front of a national television audience with both teams in the playoff hunt has special meaning.
"It's Saturday night, big crowd, a good atmosphere and all those factors make a big deal out of it," Zibanejad said. "It's going to be exciting for sure."
The rivalry between the Senators and Maple Leafs was at its height in the early to mid 2000s when Toronto defeated Ottawa in the post-season four times in five years. But with the Maple Leafs having missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons, the rivalry lost much of its lustre.
That hatred seems to have been rekindled this season. The last time the two teams met, the Senators suffered a 5-4 loss in Toronto and watched in horror as Frazer McLaren knocked Dave Dziurzynski out cold in a first period fight.
The Senators have since added heavyweight Matt Kassian to their lineup and the 26-year-old says he's ready for whatever comes his way.
"In games you want to be prepared to do whatever it takes to help your team win a hockey game," Kassian said. "That means being prepared to dump a puck in, that means being prepared to take a hit, that means being prepared to be in a fight if you have to.
"It's one of those things where it all depends on the game."
Kassian was acquired from Minnesota on March 12, and although he's only fought once since his arrival, Senators coach Paul MacLean has been pleased with his play.
"I think Kassian's come in and done a nice job for us," MacLean said. "I think the reasons for him being here are obvious, that's the type of element he brings, but he also plays fine. He knows how to get around the rink and he's been a good player for us."
Ottawa has had a number of players step up in the absence of injured centre Jason Spezza (back), defenceman Erik Karlsson (Achilles) and goaltender Craig Anderson (ankle).
Senators general manager Bryan Murray said Friday that Spezza is not expected back during the regular season after undergoing back surgery Feb. 1.
"It's just taking a little longer," Murray said. "We were optimistic that he might get the last two weeks of the regular season, but it's just taken a little longer than anybody thought or suspected. I don't think it's abnormal. There was no date locked."
Senators winger Milan Michalek, who had knee surgery March 19, has started riding a stationary bike and could return before the end of the regular season.
Notes: MacLean hasn't decided on his goalie for Saturday. Ben Bishop made 24 saves in Ottawa 3-0 victory over the New York Rangers on Thursday night. ... Senators winger Chris Neil did not take part in practice, but is expected to play Saturday. Neil suffered a cut to his leg in Thursday's game. He has been experimenting with Kevlar socks in practice but wasn't wearing them during the game.