Canadiens-Senators set for weekend series with division on the line

Gary Bettman announced that the Ottawa Senators will host their first outdoor game in December against the Montreal Canadiens for the 2017 Scotiabank NHL 100 Centennial Classic.

MONTREAL — Artturi Lehkonen laughed when one reporter mentioned that the Ottawa Senators have a healthy dislike for his Montreal Canadiens.

“We’re not exactly big fans of theirs, either,” said the Finnish forward who’s nearing the finish line of his first NHL season.

A couple of recent meetings in the Stanley Cup Playoffs have created a lasting animosity between these teams.

Considerable turnover on both rosters since they last met in the spring of 2015 hasn’t dulled the edge of it in the slightest. And if that animosity was simmering just beneath the surface in two early-season games won by the Senators, it has promise to boil over in a pair of weekend games that are set to be played on both sides of the east-west highway that separates the cities.

[gamecard id=1647159 league=nhl date=2017-03-18]The Canadiens ride into Ottawa for the Saturday portion of the series with a healthy roster that’s won six of its past eight contests; one that has regained its balance under Claude Julien, who took over as coach in mid-February after a six-week downturn in play from the Habs that reduced what was once a 12-point Atlantic Division lead over the Senators to just one point.

With a dozen games remaining on Montreal’s schedule—a baker’s dozen for Ottawa—Lehkonen said that no matter which opponent they face, the Canadiens are in the process of refining their playoff style. But he did acknowledge that a mini-series against the rival Senators is the perfect simulation for games both teams expect to be playing once the Stanley Cup tournament begins in mid-April.

“We’re going to show we’re up for it,” he said. “We know it’s going to be a battle, but these are the most fun games to play in.”

They’ll be uniquely challenging for the Senators, who will be deprived of forward Mark Stone’s services for both games.

Stone, who leads all Senators forwards with 50 points in 63 games this season, is week-to-week with a lower-body injury.

The Senators will also be without feisty forward Chris Neil, who broke one of his fingers in a fight with Florida Panthers forward Shawn Thornton back on March 1.

Senators defenceman Mark Boroweicki, who missed the past four games with a suspected shoulder injury, is questionable to dress on Saturday. But goaltender Craig Anderson, who missed the past two games with a lower-body injury, is poised to serve as backup to Mike Condon. [relatedlinks]

Anderson, who has missed more than half the season on personal leave to be alongside wife Nicholle as she receives cancer treatment, has a .934 save percentage over his past six starts—all of them wins for Ottawa.

Condon, who appeared in 55 games with Montreal as a rookie last season, was waived by the Canadiens at the beginning of this season. In 38 appearances with the Senators, he’s won 18 games, recorded five shutouts and has a .914 save percentage.

“[Condon] works really hard, and that’s why he’s at this level,” said Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty on Friday. “He’s overcome all the obstacles. He started at the bottom and came all the way up to the NHL. I’m happy to see him having success…but hopefully not too much success against us.”

Members of both teams have been asked of late what their incentive is to win the Atlantic Division. The NHL’s current playoff format pits the top team in each division against the wildcard teams—which means that if the season ended today, the Canadiens (86 points) would have to play the New York Rangers (90 points) whereas the lower-ranked Senators (85 points) would start against the Boston Bruins (82 points).

“You have to be at the top of your game whoever you’re playing against,” said Canadiens forward Steve Ott.

“I don’t think there’s an easy match up anymore,” he added, before explaining that the points in the standings don’t reflect the fact that the Bruins have been playing better hockey than the Rangers—or any other team in the NHL—lately.

Said Senators head coach Guy Boucher: “When you [try] to pick your opponents, you lose.”

Julien commented in French on Friday, saying, “With home-ice advantage in play, it’s certain you always have your eye on locking down top spot. It’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t happen, but winning the division is preferable.”

[gamecard id=1647207 league=nhl date=2017-03-19]Knowing how crucial these games are to that process, Julien wasn’t interested in giving the Senators any type of edge by divulging his lineup decisions for the weekend. He did however confirm that goaltender Carey Price will start Saturday’s game and did not strike the possibility that his starter would play Sunday as well and start back-to-back games for the first time all season.

Though it’s expected that defenceman Nathan Beaulieu will return to Montreal’s lineup after sitting as a healthy scratch in Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, and that struggling defenceman Alexei Emelin could be scratched for a second time in the team’s past five games, nothing was made official by Julien.

The coach simply shared his views on the task his team faces.

“You want to establish some sort of—not dominance—but hopefully some success against the [Senators],” Julien said. “I think it’s a big weekend for both organizations, and that’s the way you have to look at it.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.