OTTAWA - Dominik Hasek is looking forward to Saturday's matchup between his Detroit Red Wings and the Senators probably just as much as the fans in Ottawa are about his first return since leaving Canada's capital less than two years ago.
The 42-year-old will be in goal Saturday when the Red Wings visit Scotiabank Place to take on the Senators in a battle of the NHL's conference leaders (7 p.m. ET).
"It's nice to be back in Ottawa," Hasek said Friday following the Red Wings' practice. "I haven't circled it (on the calendar), but of course I've thought about it and I'll be glad I'll be in the net tomorrow.
"They are the first team in their conference; we are the best team in our conference, so it's a pretty big game for both teams."
But the occasion is special not only because it pits the league's best teams and highest-scoring offences against one another, but it also marks Hasek's first return to Ottawa since he left the Sens in the summer of 2006 - a departure that didn't endear him to the team's fans, who will finally get the chance to pay their respects.
"The fans are pretty hard on guys that leave and guys they aren't happy with, so I'm not sure (how they'll react), they probably won't be too kind to him," Senators centre Jason Spezza said following Ottawa's practice. "But Dom's been around for a long time. I'm sure he'll handle it fine and I'm sure it won't bug him too much."
Hasek can expect a rough reception from a sold-out crowd of around 20,000 that hasn't forgotten - nor forgiven him for - what was perceived as his bailing on the team.
"I don't think there is any reason for booing me," he said. "However, I'm sure if I make some saves, the people may be letting me know."
Hasek was enjoying a strong 2005-06 season with the Senators until he injured an adductor muscle while playing for the Czech Republic at the Winter Olympics. He didn't return to play that season and the Senators were upset in the second round of the playoffs.
Since then, both the extent of the injury and his attitude in coming back from it has been the topic of much debate in Ottawa.
"It was a tough season, I was disappointed when I had to leave Ottawa because they decided to go in a different direction, but it was probably the best thing that could happen for me and my family," said Hasek, who signed with the Wings as a free agent the following summer. "I did a really good job here, unfortunately, I couldn't finish it.
"I'm on the other side now. I'm going to do my best to win the game tomorrow."
As for the game itself, it was a bit of a mutual admiration society following the team's respective skates on Friday.
"It is a measuring stick in a way because they're the best team in the league," Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said. "There's not a lot of teams that have found a way to beat them."
"I was just saying the same thing actually, and we're approaching the game the same way, too," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom added. "We're going up against the top team in the east and we haven't seen them yet. We know they're a real solid team, good defensively and a lot of skills up front, so it'll be a good measuring stick for us as well." Detroit arrived in Ottawa after a 6-5 loss in shootout on Thursday to the Minnesota Wild, while the Senators needed shootout to overcome the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 that same night.
The Wings, who lead the NHL with 70 points, are the hotter team over the last 10 games, going 8-1-1, while Ottawa, tops in the Eastern Conference with 60 points and three less games played than Detroit, is 6-3-1.
Detroit also has yet to lose to a team from the Eastern Conference this season, going 5-0-0. Meanwhile, Ottawa is just 1-1-1 against teams from the Western Conference.
"They've got a good team and it's a game we'll definitely be able to get up for," Senators goaltender Ray Emery said. "A lot of times this year we've taken opponents for granted and I think this is a situation where that definitely won't be the case."
It is Emery who gets the start opposite his former mentor, ahead of Martin Gerber.
"I like playing against good teams, so I'm glad I get the chance to play," said Emery, who used to call Hasek "the old man" when the latter played in Ottawa.
"He is a legend and kind of a buddy of mine from when he was kicking around here, so that adds to it."
When the teams met for the only time last season at Joe Louis Arena, Emery beat Hasek and the Wings with a 43-save performance in Ottawa's 3-2 triumph.
The Red Wings lead the NHL with 157 goals for the Carolina Hurricanes - six more than Ottawa and 21 more than the third highest-scoring team.
With the Senators experiencing defensive lapses lately, including Thursday when they surrendered a 2-0 lead in the third period against Buffalo, they'll pay particular attention to keeping the high-flying Wings' offence in check.
"We've pulled out some games the last couple of weeks where we haven't been at our best," Senators left-winger Dany Heatley said. "They play a puck possession game and they're not a big, physical team, but they make you chase the puck against them."
Heatley and Spezza were added to the Eastern Conference all-star squad earlier Friday, joining Alfredsson, who'd already been voted in as a starter.
Their inclusion brings the total number of all-stars in Saturday's game to seven, as Detroit will be represented in Atlanta by Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, all voted in as starters, and goaltender Chris Osgood, who was added as a reserve.
Detroit's Mike Babcock and Ottawa's John Paddock are the coaches for their respective conferences.
With all that talent on the ice, both teams can't help but be excited by the prospect of Saturday's matchup.
"They're playing some great hockey," Red Wings centre Kris Draper said of the Senators. "When the season started, they were the talk of the league.
"You obviously know about Spezza, Heatley and Alfredsson as a top line and we had Pavel, Hank (Zetterberg) and Homer (Tomas Holmstrom) going together and there was a lot of talk about which line was the best, which team was the best and that's fun.
"It's nice to get caught up in that. It's unfortunate that you only get to see them once, but it's going to make for a fun game tomorrow night."