OTTAWA - The Ottawa Senators have been playing their best hockey of the season of late, but it still hasn't been enough to get them in the playoff picture.
The Senators have gone 7-1-2 in their last ten games, but as of Friday remained one point back of the Washington Capitals for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
On Saturday the Senators take on the New York Rangers who have gone 7-2-1 in their last ten to sit sixth overall in the Eastern Conference. With 53 points the Rangers have a two-point lead on the Senators, but Ottawa has a game in hand.
"They're playing equally as good as we are right now," said Senators captain Jason Spezza. "They're not allowing very many chances against and they're a team we're going to be battling with down the stretch. We don't need to scoreboard watch to know they're a team we're battling with. We know it's an important four-point game."
This is the first of three meetings between the two teams and Spezza says they could be defining heading down the stretch.
The Senators had a great opportunity to gain ground in the standings Thursday, holding a 4-3 lead late in the third against the Montreal Canadiens. They ended up settling for just a single point after losing in overtime.
"We're disappointed with the end result because we had the lead," said Spezza. "We're happy we didn't roll over when it was 3-0 and we found a way to come back and get that point. So you can take positive, you can take negative."
For some the loss was even more infuriating after watching Montreal's P.K. Subban tug at the crest of his jersey after scoring the overtime winner.
Senators' goaltender Craig Anderson, who gave up the goal, was less than impressed with Subban's goal celebration.
"It was unnecessary," said Anderson. "You didn't see us when we scored our overtime goal skate around and throw our jersey up in the air like that. It's one of those things where it's his character, that's the way he is. We all know that. It should make us all angry here that we don't want to have that happen again so we have to win the games."
Subban, who is in Toronto as the Canadiens prepare to play the Leafs Saturday night, was told some of the Senators didn't appreciate his celebration.
"I don't care," he said. "I don't care. It's the game of hockey. You're not disrespecting anybody. To be honest, that game's over. I don't really need to comment on it."
One thing is clear, the next game between the rivals will have plenty of excitement.
Senators coach Paul MacLean had no reaction to the celebration, saying he has his own team to worry about.
These days MacLean is worrying about getting his team into playoff contention. MacLean said ideally he would want the Senators holding on to a playoff spot heading into the Olympic break.
"I think everybody has a real focus on this stretch of games," MacLean said. "I think it's getting yourself into a position so that after the break you either have something to play for or you don't have something to play for. It's going to be way harder after the Olympic break to get yourself into a good position."
MacLean liked the way his team fought back against the Canadiens after trailing 3-0 and expects another challenge from the Rangers.
"They're a very competitive team and their goaltender is very good," said MacLean. "They're a good team. They're going to be a test and we look forward to it."
The Senators will have Chris Neil back in the lineup Saturday after he missed the last six games with a lower body injury. Neil had been expected to play in Thursday's game, but a late decision was made to keep him out one more game.
"(Not playing Thursday) was just to make sure I was 100 per cent," said Neil. "A couple days makes all the difference. The game plan is to get out there (Saturday) and I had a good practice today."
Erik Karlsson addressed the media for the first time this year. Karlsson had declined to speak to the media the last couple of weeks and when asked about his hiatus Friday the 23-year-old said it was nothing more than needing a break.
"I was just focusing on getting the game together," said Karlsson. "For me personally I needed a little break. We've been winning games and I've been feeling better about my game and everybody needs a little time off sometimes."
On New Year's Eve Karlsson had tweeted, "2013 sucks. Worst year ever. Let's go 2014. Happy New Years everybody."
"It had absolutely nothing to do with (the tweet)," said Karlsson of his silence. "It's just a personal choice and getting some time off on the road. We were gone for a while and it was just focusing on playing games and winning games and I think we accomplished that."
Karlsson said he was looking forward to facing off against New York's Henrik Lundqvist. Both will represent Sweden at the upcoming Winter Olympics, but on Saturday Karlsson would love nothing more than to beat Lundqvist.
"I'm looking forward to maybe score a goal on him," said Karlsson with a smile.
Notes: Anderson will get the start against the Rangers Saturday. ... Paul MacLean and Rangers coach Alain Vigneault were brief teammates with the Hull Olympiques in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and as MacLean recalls Vigneault was a very talented player. ... Clarke MacArthur acknowledged that he was looking forward to Saturday's game as it will be Hockey Day in Canada. MacArthur's hometown of Lloydminster, Alta., will be the host city for CBC's broadcast and he expects the city will be a great representative. MacArthur's parents will be involved in the day's festivities.