MONTREAL - The Montreal Canadiens will be without veteran defenceman Roman Hamrlik for a third straight game when they face the Senators in Ottawa on Saturday night.
Hamrlik is suffering from a viral infection. Coach Guy Carbonneau wants Hamrlik away from his teammates because the illness is contagious.
It leaves the Canadiens without one of their most consistent defencemen for what should be a tough test against an Ottawa club boosted by the return from injury of star forwards Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley.
The Canadiens held off the Senators - minus those two snipers - for a 4-3 win in Montreal on Tuesday night. But the Heatley-Alfredsson-Jason Spezza trio has combined for 18 points against Montreal while forging a 3-1-0 record against their Northeast Division rivals this season.
"He's a big guy who takes up a lot of space and we use him against the other teams' top lines, so losing him hurts us," said Carbonneau.
But it is not only Hamrlik's absence that has led to a letdown in the club's defensive play in the past week.
The Canadiens went 11-2-3 from Dec. 27 to Feb. 2, but since then have surrendered 12 goals while losing two of their last three games. Another loss in Ottawa would match their worst stretch of the season, when they lost three of four games in late November.
It started last Sunday when the Canadiens blew a 3-0 lead to lose 5-3 to the New York Rangers. The win over Ottawa lifted them only one point short of the Senators for the Eastern Conference lead, but they fell to three points back with a 4-2 loss at home Thursday night to the Toronto Maple Leafs while Ottawa was beating Florida 5-4.
"Roman's definitely a big piece of the puzzle, but other teams have also adjusted better (to Montreal), and we're pushing so hard to get out of scoring slumps on some of our lines that sometimes we forget about doing the job defensively," said Carbonneau.
"We've been doing a good job keeping the puck in the offensive zone, but you don't want to get caught with three men deep. The last few games, we got caught a couple of times. Sometimes we're trying to push too hard."
The top line of Tomas Plekanec, Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn has accounted for all six goals Montreal has scored in its last two games.
In practice on Friday, it appeared that two-time 30-goal scorer Michael Ryder would end a three-game stretch in the pressbox to reunite with Saku Koivu and Chris Higgins, who together were Montreal's best line last season.
All three have been in slumps of late, producing five goals between them in the last 10 games.
The Canadiens have lost two games in a row in regulation time only once this season - back-to-back defeats at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres Nov. 23 and Nov. 24. That makes the game in Ottawa a bigger test.
"It's not life and death, but it's a big challenge," added Carbonneau. "And it's a way to find out where we stand.
"We've made some strides and we want to keep pushing forward. It was the same last week in New Jersey. Beating them there was a big step."
After rookie Carey Price took the loss against Toronto, veteran Cristobal Huet will be in goal against Ottawa.
The Canadiens also announced they have acquired right-winger Brett Engelhardt from the Detroit Red Wings for forward Francis Lemieux.
The 27-year-old Engelhardt was assigned to Hamilton of the AHL. In 42 games with AHL Grand Rapids this season, he had eight goals and eight assists.
Lemieux had six assists in 33 games with Hamilton.