OTTAWA - These are indeed heady times for the Ottawa Senators.
For the first time since November, the Senators find themselves on a three-game win streak. What's more, Ottawa has won four of its last five contests and is just three points behind the Detroit Red Wings for a wildcard spot.
While no one is looking to the playoffs just yet, the Senators understand the importance of playing solid hockey heading into the second half of the season.
Neither the players nor coaching staff can put their fingers on one thing the team has done differently of late. But all agree the Senators are finally playing with a level of confidence that was lacking earlier.
"Confidence is huge," said forward Bobby Ryan. "It opens up the game for you and when you're on the wrong side of the trickle effect, which we seem to have been for the first half, you tighten up a little bit.
"You don't make plays that are right in front of you, you try to look for something better. When you're confident, you're making the five- and 10-foot passes cleaner. You're coming out of the zone cleaner. You're entering the zone cleaner and you're getting more opportunities."
Earlier this year, Ottawa would win a big game but follow it up with a lacklustre performance. During this current five-game stretch, the Senators have beat Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington and Winnipeg.
The only blemish was a 5-0 loss to the Bruins, which seemed to serve as a wake-up call.
"When you beat teams like that and you know you can contend and play those close games with teams that are right at the top of their conference and division it's a domino effect," said Ryan. "You feel like you need to carry it over.
"We haven't done that successfully all year, but we're starting to right now."
Senators coach Paul MacLean obviously likes the way his club is playing currently and feels the squad began showing improvement midway through December.
"I don't think it's just the last three games or since the 5-0 game, I think it goes back to more that we've been slowly building some confidence and winning does that for you," said MacLean. "When you have success it's easier to go back and find the reasons why you have success and it's easier to build on them."
MacLean also believes the team's work ethic and attention to detail have improved. Ironically, though, the Senators have won their last three games without captain Jason Spezza.
Spezza has been sidelined with a reported hip injury. He participated in Friday's practice but remains questionable for Saturday's game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre.
After facing Montreal, Ottawa won't play again until Wednesday so there's no need to rush Spezza back. However, the Senators captain is anxious to return.
The 30-year-old says he's felt improvement daily but will err on the side of caution.
"It's my favourite building to play in so that kind of factors into it for me," said Spezza with a laugh. "We'll see and I'll talk to (club trainers)."
In Spezza's absence, Mika Zibanejad has played centre between Milan Michalek and Cory Conacher. The trio has combined for four goals and five assists in the last three games.
"They've played with speed and they've played positionally very sound," said MacLean. "Mika's been very good skating in the middle of the rink and showing patience in the middle and distributing the puck.
"They've attacked the net and got to the net, which is a big part of why they're having success."
Saturday's game versus Montreal will provide Ottawa with a stiff test to extend its win streak to a season-high four contests.
"Bell Centre is always a fun place to play and they're playing well," said MacLean. "They're a good team.
"Every game is a test. For us right now we just look forward to our next game and play game-by-game and go day-by-day and do the best we can to get better and (Saturday) is a good opponent and we're looking forward to it."
NOTES—Craig Anderson will start in goal Saturday but right-winger Chris Neil won't play. He remains day-to-day with a lower body injury . . . Ryan is ready to move past remarks made about him by members of USA Hockey regarding his exclusion from the American Olympic hockey team and accepts GM David Poile's apology. If asked to join the squad as an injury replacement, Ryan said he "wouldn't have to think about it. Anytime you get a chance to wear the U.S. jersey you put it on and play as hard as you can. I would probably take advantage of it."