Ottawa Senators head coach Bryan Murray. (CPimages /Jonathan Hayward)
"It's huge," Sens head coach Bryan Murray said Wednesday. The game features two Canadian clubs that can do no wrong these days. The Canucks are winners of nine of their last 10 games, including routs over Toronto and Montreal on their current road trip. The Senators are 10-1-1 in their last 12 games and have scored at least five goals in each of their last five games.
Murray is a veteran coach but that doesn't mean he doesn't get ramped up, just like fans, by the hype that surrounds a game featuring Canada's two best teams right now.
"Oh yes, sure," Murray said. "I think these are terrific matchups. I think it's exciting for everybody who follows hockey. Obviously we don't see them enough. I'd like to see all Canadian teams play each other at least a couple of times a year."
Canucks GM Dave Nonis echoed that sentiment.
"We see the Alberta teams quite a bit and they're some of our more exciting games but there's a different feeling when you play against a club that you don't see all that often," Nonis said Wednesday. "It was nice to play in Toronto and a great feeling to play in Montreal last night.
"And I think that'll just carry on in Ottawa, there's just something special about seeing those guys."
His Canucks (26-19-1) are on fire not only because of Roberto Luongo's stellar goaltending but because the offence has come alive. Vancouver has scored 39 goals in the last 10 games. The Sedin twins, who have carried the offensive load for most of the season, are getting help.
"The third and fourth lines have been chipping in and our defence has been chipping in at a fairly regular rate as well," said Nonis, his team 14-6-0 since Dec. 1.
The Senators (27-19-2) passed slumping Montreal for second place in the Northeast Division standings Tuesday night and now have first-place Buffalo in their second-half sights.
And to think it was just over two months ago, on Nov. 16, that Senators owner Eugene Melnyk took the unusual step of holding a media conference call to calm things down amid swirling rumours that Murray and GM John Muckler were close to losing their jobs because of Ottawa's 7-10-1 start.
They've since gone 20-9-1 and the idea that Murray was ever in trouble now seems silly.
"The one thing I learned from it is that it's a pretty short leash in Canada," said the former Anaheim Ducks coach and GM. "The passion is so great, the attachment is so strong, that people don't want to watch their team struggle.
"But I think it's also a great thing, it's one of the things I like here," added Murray, a native of nearby Shawville, Que. "I didn't like that I was predicted to be at the end of my road here, but I kind of like the fact there's so much caring."
Ottawa's early season crisis may end up being a blessing in disguise. The Senators of the last decade routinely cruised through the regular season only to flop in the playoffs (except for 2003 when they reached the conference final). A little adversity, and coming out of it with flying colours, can't hurt.
"I do if we use it right and I think we are using it right," he said.
By that he means his team is finally playing with the kind of intensity, physical play and defensive work that he had been looking for even going back to last season.
"But the goals came too easily last season,"' said Murray. "You had guys like Martin Havlat and other guys who seemingly were scoring at will at times. So how do you sell that you have to be better than that?
"Now I think this ordeal we went through, the inability to score many goals early on and certainly not winning, I think it really woke us up. I think most of the guys are on board."
The Senators are playing their best hockey of the year without their top two centres Jason Spezza and Mike Fisher.
The team has rallied together in their absence.
"No question a little desperation helped, when Spez, Fish and (Antoine) Vermette went out at the same time, I think everyone realized that if we had any chance of making the playoffs we better really toughen up," said Murray. "And I think they have. I think that's the biggest thing of all."
There was talk that Spezza, who skated in the full team practice Wednesday, might return from his knee injury for Saturday's game at Boston but Murray says they'll hold him back until the all-star break, which is also when Fisher is expected back from his knee injury.
"We're hoping although we're not absolutely sure, that Fish can start in the same game as Spez. So we're very close with both of them," said Murray.
That's also when Murray will have a wonderful problem on his hands: How to fit all his healthy bodies into a starting lineup. For starters, Murray said he doesn't intend to reunite regular linemates Spezza and Dany Heatley - for now.
"I think what'll happen to begin with is that I'll just leave the lines the way they are right now," said Murray. "I'll probably put Fish and Spez together when they come back. Fish can play the wing as well as he plays centre. And I might even throw Vermette on the other side."
That leaves Chris Kelly between Heatley and Alfredsson and recently acquired Mike Comrie between Peter Schaefer and Chris Neil. Three pretty solid forward lines.
Note: According to the Senators, Alfredsson is only the second player in NHL history with four consecutive game-winning goals after the Ottawa captain scored the winner again Tuesday night against Washington. Newsy Lalonde scored five game-winners in a row in February 1921.